CHICAGO - AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, anticipating plans by the Teamsters and the service-workers affiliate he used to head to bolt, charged Monday that such a move would be a "grievous insult" to working people and their unions.
"At a time when our corporate and conservative adversaries have created the most powerful anti-worker political machine in the history of our country, a divided movement hurts the hopes of working families for a better life," Sweeney said in his keynote address to an AFL-CIO convention marred by division and boycott.
The Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, the largest AFL-CIO affiliate with 1.8 million members, intended to announce Monday they are leaving the federation after failing to reform it, according to several labor officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Two other unions - United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, a group of textile and hotel workers - joined the Teamsters and the SEIU in boycotting the convention, a step widely seen as a sign that they are also poised to leave the AFL-CIO.
The four unions, representing one-third of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members, are part of a coalition of labor groups vowing to accomplish what the 50-year-old labor giant has failed to do: Reverse the decades-long decline in union membership. But many union presidents, labor experts and Democratic Party leaders fear the split will weaken the movement politically and hurt unionized workers who need a united and powerful ally against business interests and global competition.
"This split is a deep concern to Democrats everywhere," said Democratic consultant David Axelrod of Chicago
A few blocks away from where the seven-union Change to Win Coalition held its news conference, a shrunken AFL-CIO met to hear Sweeney say he was "very angry" at the breakaway leaders. They include SEIU President Andy Stern who was a protege of Sweeney's when the AFL-CIO chief was leader of the SEIU.
"The labor movement belongs to all of us ... and our future should not be dictated by the demands of any group or the ambitions of any individual," Sweeney said.
"But it is also my responsibility to hold our movement together - because our power is vested in our solidarity. So I want you to know I will overcome my own anger and disappointment and do everything in my power to bring us back where we belong - and that's together," he said.
Earlier, Democratic lawmakers were careful not to take sides in the fight in their convention speeches, but urged labor leaders to stand together for workers at a critical time.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said business interests may think the divide will make organized labor vulnerable.
"We have news for them. It's not going to happen," he said to cheers. "Our unity is our strength. We will stand together and fight for working families."
After his speech, Durbin said it's too early to tell what impact the rift will have on the Democratic Party, which relies on labor movement for money and manpower on Election Day. "I think the unions not participating in this convention are still deeply committed to working families," he said. "I hope the separation in our union family is resolved very soon.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., made a glancing reference at the dispute, telling delegates: "There are questions of strategy and tactics of leadership and power and I can imagine many of you are anxious about labor's future but, more importantly, you're also anxious about your own futures."
He urged labor leaders to adapt to the global economy, which is pressuring U.S. workers out of jobs. "There has never been a greater need for a strong labor movement to stand up for American workers," Obama said.
"Our differences are so fundamental and so principled that at this point I don't think there is a chance there will be a change of course," said UFCW President Joe Hansen.
Leaders of the dissident unions say the AFL-CIO was beyond repair from within. In addition to seeking the ouster of Sweeney, they demanded more money for organizing, power to force mergers of smaller unions and other changes they say are key to adapting to vast changes in society and the economy.
Rank-and-file members of the 52 non-boycotting AFL-CIO affiliates expressed confusion and anger over the action. "If there was ever a time we workers need to stick together, it's today," said Olegario Bustamante, a steelworker from Cicero, Ill.
It's the biggest rift in organized labor since 1938, when the CIO split from the AFL. The organizations reunited in the mid-1950s.
Globalization, automation and the transition from an industrial-based economy have forced hundreds of thousands of unionized workers out of jobs, weakening labor's role in the workplace.
When the AFL-CIO formed 50 years ago, union membership was at its zenith, with one of every three private-sector workers belonging to a labor group. Now, less than 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.