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Questions Remain After Labor Unions Break with AFL-CIO

The future of the labor movement in the US could be in question after two of the largest labor unions in North America broke ties with the AFL-CIO. The move is considered a major setback for the federation, an umbrella group for 56 unions representing 13 million workers.

The Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, which represent more than three million workers, severed ties with the AFL-CIO on Monday. At issue, a steep decline in union membership.

Teamsters President Jim Hoffa sees the split as a protest against the federation's leadership and says it paves the way for other unions to follow. "The old AFL-CIO has gone as far as it can, [but] every year loses members. Do we want five more years of that? The answer is their plan hasn't worked," he said. "Start to rebuild the labor movement."

The United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, a group of textile, hotel and restaurant employees, are expected to announce their intentions next. The unions, part of a splinter group called the "Change to Win Coalition", accuse labor federation leaders of spending too much money on political contributions and not enough on organizing.

Spokesperson Anna Burger says the coalition's aim is not to divide but to improve workers rights,"We wish the AFL-CIO well. We want them to achieve their goals. We agree with them on what we all want for working families. We disagree with them on how to achieve our goals."

Together, the four unions represent nearly one-third of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members.

George Washington University Law Professor Charles Carver calls the union defections the biggest rift in organized labor since 1938, when the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, broke away from the American Federation of Labor, "They will either go back to their roots and start over again as they did in the mid 1930's with new associations or they will continue to decline and become almost irrelevant in this country."

The split from the AFL-CIO drew a bitter rebuke from Federation President John Sweeney, who called the move a "grievous insult" and "a tragedy for all working people."

"Not only because we know solidarity is the true source of our strength, but because common sense tells us a union movement divided against itself risks losing the fight for workers rights," he said.

But labor experts say the unions have been losing ground for years. Globalization, automation and the transition from an industrial based economy have forced hundreds of thousands of unionized workers out of jobs.

Many new industries and large corporations such as Wal-Mart have been successful in discouraging employees from forming unions. When the AFL merged back with the CIO 50 years ago, union membership was at its peak and one in three private sector workers belonged to labor groups. Today, less than 8 percent of private sector employees are unionized.

Economist Jared Bernstein at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC, says the decline can be felt in the workplace. "It is no coincidence that over the period when unions have become such a diminished presence in our economy, we have so much more economic inequality," he said.

As union membership declined so did job security. Organized labor lost its clout, some pensions vanished and health care costs soared. Some analysts believe the key to survival for the unions may be to attract more white collar professionals.

Professor Carver explains, "I hope they try to go back to their roots and form new organizations, use new techniques to reach out to these new workers who don't want to think of themselves as union members because that sounds like working class, which means lower class in our country, and they have to appeal to them as professional organizations rather than traditional unions."

Some labor experts say the split could revitalize the labor movement but others say the timing could not be worse. Union Federation leaders fear the split will weaken the movement politically and hurt workers who they say need a united ally against business interests and global competition.