CHICAGO -- Four major unions announced yesterday that they will boycott this week's AFL-CIO convention, and union officials said all four are likely to leave the AFL-CIO altogether, fracturing the federation that for 50 years has represented the US labor movement.
The four unions say the AFL-CIO leadership has failed to stem a steady decline in the percentage of workers represented by unions and believe AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney should have retired to let new leaders take charge. The dissidents say they want to restore the labor movement to a position of power in the political system and the economy.
''Today we have reached a point where our differences have become irresolvable," said Anna Burger, a top official of the Service Employees International Union and chair of the insurgent Change to Win Coalition, at a combination rally and news conference.
Today, the SEIU plans to announce its formal withdrawal from the AFL-CIO. ''I don't see any change in course," said Andrew L. Stern, the SEIU president.
The presidents of the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers signaled they are prepared to resign from the AFL-CIO. ''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," UFCW president Joe Hansen said. ''We may have an announcement tomorrow."
The Associated Press reported last night that the Teamsters will announce its withdrawal today.
Unite Here, which represents hotel, restaurant, and garment workers, is also on the verge of leaving the federation. SEIU is the largest of the 56 unions in the AFL-CIO, and the four unions threatening to leave represent about a third of the 13 million union workers who are in the AFL-CIO and pay about a third of the dues to finance the federation's $120 million annual budget.
Stern has led an insurrection calling for major reorganization and strengthening of the powers of the AFL-CIO and for the retirement of Sweeney, who was Stern's mentor in the labor movement and his predecessor as SEIU president.
Stern contends that in order to survive, unions must be merged into much larger, but fewer, organizations equipped to take on global companies and large chains, especially
The labor schism threatens to leave this critical wing of the Democratic Party split for the election of 2006 and probably 2008. Organized labor contributes tens of millions of dollars and workers for Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts. In the 2004 campaign, unions mailed out at least 30 million pieces of political literature in 16 states, mostly on behalf of Democrats who were running for office.
Some Democratic leaders said they could only hope that the battle jolts organized labor from its decades-long slump.
''Anything that sidetracks us from our goals . . . is not healthy," said Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a fund-raising arm for Democratic candidates.
Sweeney, 71, has rejected calls to retire and attacked the convention boycott as ''an insult [to] union brothers and sisters, and to all working people. . . . It's fundamentally wrong to use working people's issues as a fig leaf for a power struggle."
For the past nine months, Sweeney and his allies have been meeting with leaders of the unions in the Change to Win Coalition in an effort to broker a compromise. Coalition leader Burger yesterday described those negotiations as fruitless. ''The language of our reforms has been adopted, but not the substance. Our principles have been watered down and papered over."
At an earlier rally in support of his re-election, Sweeney told more than 900 cheering and chanting supporters: ''Common sense tells us that a union movement divided against itself risks losing the fight for workers' rights."
Ed McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers, accused Stern and his allies of bargaining in bad faith. ''Their stance was that unless you agree with their position, they won't make an agreement," he said.
R. Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the Machinists, said Stern and the other dissidents ''showed total disrespect for their colleagues who sat through the negotiations."
In addition to the four unions likely to bolt the AFL-CIO, two others -- the United Farmworkers and the Laborers International Union -- have joined the Change to Win Coalition. These two unions are not boycotting the convention, but their presidents did not rule out leaving the AFL-CIO altogether in the near future.
Many analysts said the split might deepen labor's woes.
''Employer opposition to organizing might increase and I think that political opponents might feel emboldened, because they would see it as a sign of weakness," said Gary Chaison, industrial relations professor at Clark University in Worcester.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.