Five of the nation's biggest unions formed a coalition yesterday that moved them closer to seceding from the AFL-CIO, the national federation criticized by dissidents who say it's doing too little to boost the union movement's declining membership.
''We are frustrated with the AFL-CIO," said James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters. ''Basically, this coalition is formed in frustration."
The five dissident unions represent about 5 million of the 13 million union members affiliated with the AFL-CIO, or about 40 percent. They represent workers in the trucking, hotel and casino, supermarket, laundry, janitorial, and healthcare services industries.
The Service Employees International Union, with 1.8 million workers the largest of the five unions, has already decided to leave the AFL-CIO, in any event.
Three other members of the new group, called the Change to Win Coalition, have threatened to secede if their demand for a rebate of $47 million for recruiting is not approved at the July 25-28 AFL-CIO convention in Chicago. Currently, the AFL-CIO returns about $15 million to its unions for membership drives. Unions send about $120 million in dues to the AFL-CIO each year.
The coalition's members were identified yesterday as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; United Food & Commercial Workers; UNITE-HERE, a newly merged textile, laundry, and hotel union; the Laborers International Union, and the SEIU.
The decision to form the new group, made by about 50 officials from the five unions, is viewed by labor experts as a pressure tactic that could lead to a secession. The move stemmed in large part from dissatisfaction with the leadership of John Sweeney, 71, the AFL-CIO's president. He is up for reelection this year. The dissidents contend Sweeney has spent too much money on politics, and not enough on recruiting.
But Jeffrey Crosby, president of the North Shore Labor Council in Lynn, a group of several AFL-CIO unions that covers workers in 23 cities and towns from Cape Ann to Saugus, said the local labor movement worries about any possibility of a split from the federation.
''Most labor council members or leaders are looking at the possibility with absolute horror," he said. ''Whether or not people support the position about more should be done to build membership and union density, very few feel the situation will be enhanced by splitting the movement."
Crosby said a pull-out by the Service Employees, for example, would result in a loss of 10 percent of his local membership. ''If others leave, it could be much more significant," he said.
Earlier this year, Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees, outlined plans to pull out of the AFL-CIO entirely. And Hoffa has said that his union's executive board has given the union authority to pull out of the federation, if necessary. UNITE and the UFCW said their executive boards had authorized similar measures.
A pull-out could severely hamper the AFL-CIO and would lead to less funding for its locals and labor councils in Massachusetts and across the country.
However, the new coalition's plan to join forces and raise $1 billion over five years to fund recruiting efforts could boost the labor movement nationwide, which has been in decline. Union membership has dropped from more than 30 percent of US workers in the middle of the 20th century to about 12 percent today.
Robert J.S. Ross, a Clark University professor, said private-sector employers could face renewed efforts to target their nonunion divisions in New England.
''You could also find that there are contrasting lobbying efforts at Beacon Hill, with those at the AFL-CIO lobbying for different measures, while the new coalition's local affiliates are backing something else."
In a joint statement, the dissident union presidents said they would present their proposal to delegates at the AFL-CIO convention, but if it is rejected they would ''put our proposal into practice immediately through the structure and activities of our new organization" -- suggesting they might leave the AFL-CIO.
The new group's website also indicates it plans to step up recruiting and bring in ''millions of new members."
Others said they were concerned that the new coalition could raid other unions for members. The coalition said yesterday that it has agreed not to do that.
But Steve Early, New England representative for the Communication Workers of America, said there could be intense competition for members between the AFL-CIO and the new coalition. And a smaller AFL-CIO, traditionally a strong supporter of Democratic candidates, could also mean less money would be donated to presidential and congressional candidates, labor specialists said.