Longtime union members troubled over dissident split

Despite anger over division, most agree reforms are needed.

The AFL-CIO's convention here this week was supposed to be a time of celebration: the organization's 25th constitutional convention, and its 50th anniversary as a unified federation.

Instead, it will be known for the labor movement's biggest rift since the Committee for Industrial Organizations (CIO) first split from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1938.

The cavernous halls on Navy Pier still had plenty of waving placards and standing ovations. A few speeches - like Mineworkers President Cecil Roberts's rousing nomination of Secretary- Treasurer Richard Trumka - would have seemed at home in a Southern revival.

But though the ubiquitous blue-and-orange shirts proclaimed "One strong voice for workers' rights," many here worried that the voice is now a little less strong. And beneath the surface, there was as much anger as celebration this week, with delegates from the remaining AFL-CIO unions struggling to understand why the "dissident" unions - as they universally refer to the members of the Change To Win coalition - broke with the sacred notion of solidarity at a time when, to many here, it never seemed more important.

"It's all right to fight amongst ourselves as long as we walk out of the building holding hands," noted Kirk Patrick, a 30-year veteran of the Machinists union and president of a central labor council (CLC) in Alabama, as he relaxed on a break out on the pier. "But this has been embarrassing to all of us."

Many other union delegates here echoed that sentiment, both in the angry speeches inside the convention hall and in conversations outside, when anger was often replaced by disappointment, sadness, and confusion that there couldn't have been another way to resolve the differences.

"We negotiate for a living," said Michael David, a member of the stagehands' union, wearing sunglasses and a ponytail. "I thought we'd work it out." Before the convention, he said he assumed the dissidents' threat to leave was similar to the times he'd help a union set a strike date - a step intended mostly to force action from the other side.

In his CLC in Grand Rapids, Mich., Mr. David says 46 percent of the members belong to Change To Win union. He hopes they can find ways to still coordinate on some local issues but, like everyone here, dismisses their suggestion that they can remain involved in CLCs and state federations.

That issue, in particular, disappointed one SEIU representative from Pennsylvania who remained at the convention due to his CLC involvement and asked not to be named because of his conflicted feelings. "It's like you're around two friends you've known for many years and they've gotten a divorce," he said. He left the Laborers union six years ago because he liked the SEIU's progressive vision and strategy, and says he supports their decision to leave, but it still saddens him.

As a CLC president - at least for now - he's particularly concerned about the angry rhetoric on the convention floor refusing the offer of continued local affiliation, and the rumbles that suggest future raiding of dissidents' members.

"A friend once told me, never make a decision based on emotion, but that's what happened," he said, sitting in the warm afternoon sun. "It's a reaction and not a response."

Despite the anger over the division, and the concern about what it means for labor's future, most union members here agree that some reforms are needed as they face a changing economy and dwindling union membership and clout.

"We got the minimum wage passed - today we can't even get it increased," said David, the stagehand member. He'd like to see more reaching out to other organizations with overlapping aims - immigration, social justice, environmental, and progressive political groups - to gain lobbying power. "My members may not be environmentalists," but when it comes to protections in NAFTA, the concerns are similar, he says.

Other delegates cite "Working America," the AFL-CIO's effort to involve nonunion members in politics, as an example of what's needed. And nearly all agree that the movement needs more organizing, consolidation, and global labor cooperation - all ideas Change To Win emphasizes.

But few here have really radical suggestions, and there's as much talk of history and past accomplishments as there is of the future. "We have to tell our story," says Paula Dorsey, a Milwaukee city worker with AFSCME, echoing a common refrain. "Unless you're in a union family, people don't understand how you got all this," she adds, citing gains like the minimum wage, eight-hour days, and workplace safety.

Some of those gains are still happening. Mike Marvin, a bus driver in southwest Iowa, says he just got news his local Transport Workers Union won a battle over healthcare with his employer. Mr. Marvin, wearing a Sweeney Solidarity Team T-shirt, admits he's disappointed - and angry - over the split this week, but he tries to be optimistic.

"Every family has its differences," he says. "We're still on the same side, and we'll still be doing the same work."

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