GWEN IFILL: Citing poor leadership and years of declining membership at the AFL-CIO, two of its largest member unions announced today they are splitting from the federation; all told, four unions representing one-third of the AFL-CIO's membership boycotted the federation's 50th anniversary convention this week in Chicago.
Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, spoke today about the thinking behind his decision.
ANDREW STERN: We had a terrific meeting this morning of the presidents of all the unions, the organizing directors of all the unions and talked about forming something fundamentally different than kind of the loose operation of the AFL-CIO, where campaigns have no accountability, where money is given out for political purposes, but to really form a center for growth.
GWEN IFILL: Teamsters president James Hoffa Jr. said his organization voted unanimously to withdraw from a federation he said is in need of fresh direction.
JAMES HOFFA, JR.: There are other people that say let's not grow, let's stay the same, let's keep on having declining membership and let's keep doing what we've been doing for 10 years. We say no. We say it's time for change.
GWEN IFILL: Two smaller unions, the United Food and Commercial Workers and Unite Here, are threatening to leave as well.
PROTESTOR: Workers would not be where they are today if the AFL-CIO had been doing its job right along.
GWEN IFILL: The AFL-CIO has 13 million members who contributed $96 million in annual dues last year, but dissenting members have said union money should be directed toward rebuilding the membership base which has slid from one-third of American workers 50 years ago to under 13 percent today.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney ignored calls to step aside today and said the defections are a grievous insult to workers and their unions.
JOHN SWEENEY: It is a tragedy for working people because 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. And that makes me very angry.
GWEN IFILL: Today's developments represent the biggest rift in organized labor since 1938. That's when the CIO split from the AFL. They reunited several years later. Many union leaders and Democratic Party activists fear today's split could divide the labor movement and weaken it politically.
GWEN IFILL: Here to discuss the reasons for today's split is Anna Burger. She heads a group of unions known as the Change to Win Coalition. She's also the treasurer of the Service Employees International Union.
Welcome, Ms. Burger. Could you explain to us why you would boycott the convention today in Chicago and why leave the federation?
ANNA BURGER: Well, the seven unions that are part of the Change to Win Coalition believe strongly that we need to grow the labor movement once again. We are committed to revitalizing the labor movement by focusing resources on organizing in our core industry, by developing strategies where we support each other, by setting standards of accountability so that we can work together again. We believe it's now important to grow the labor movement to give working people in this country a voice again.
GWEN IFILL: So far we know of two unions which have decided to leave, two others which are threatening to leave, one-third of the AFL-CIO's membership. Will this destroy the AFL-CIO or strengthen it?
ANNA BURGER: I think that it will strengthen the voice of working people in this country. The reality is 35 percent of the members in the AFL-CIO are in to the Change to Win Coalition.
But we're also joined by the Carpenters Union, which is outside of the AFL-CIO. We are a coalition of unions who believe in organizing, who have a track record of addressing the changing environment, the changing world and have changed their unions. We all believe that it's important once again to rebuild strength for working people.
Now it was not that long ago that the labor movement was stronger. And by having a union job it meant that you could raise your family, buy your own home and perhaps send your kids to college.
GWEN IFILL: What changed?
ANNA BURGER: I think a lot of things changed. The world changed. The economy changed. Employers changed. I would say our society and work sites changed, but the labor movement didn't. We've been following the same strategies and the same direction. And as a result we've been losing and getting smaller.
We think the time is now to change our unions through fundamental change, to refocus on organizing, to refocus on uniting workers who do the same kind of work so that they have a loud voice and can speak up to their employers and can rally together around good jobs, around healthcare, around pensions, and around other issues so that they can raise up our whole communities.
GWEN IFILL: And yet John Sweeney said today that he considered that this split, this dissention to be a grievous insult to the labor movement. Why is he wrong?
ANNA BURGER: I think that, you know, the reality is John Sweeney and the other leaders of the AFL-CIO share the same goals that we have for working people. We all believe that working people should have a share of the economy, should be able to support their families and have a decent life.
But we have very fundamental differences in how to do that. The AFL-CIO believes that they should be spending more time talking to politicians and more time -- more money spending it on politicians.
We believe that we have to be out there talking to workers, uniting workers and giving them a voice so that we can actually change their lives. They are very different strategies.
We also believe that we need to work together, to strategize together and to hold each other accountable. And they disagree. We think it makes more sense for us to follow our strategy, for them to follow their strategy. And we hope that we all can raise standards in different ways.
GWEN IFILL: How much time will you spend butting heads with each other instead of pursuing the common goals you say that you agree on?
ANNA BURGER: Well, we've made it very clear that we aren't into organizing workers who are already represented by other unions. We're interested in organizing the 87 percent of the workforce who aren't organized. We think that we should all be doing that.
We have offered to partner with the AFL-CIO and any other union who shares our common vision for working people. We're willing to work on issues together, on other campaigns together where we share the same goals.
GWEN IFILL: Some Democrats who have benefited from the support of the AFL-CIO, say, some of the politicians you talked about, are a little concerned about this, the news of this impending split. Is this something which is going to weaken labor politically or strengthen it?
ANNA BURGER: I actually think it's going to strengthen labor but it's also going to strengthen the voice of working people. If we're out there organizing workers, all of our unions are very politically involved and will continue to be politically involved.
But what we say is that we should be talking about the issues that resonate with working families, that we should support candidates who stand with working families and their issues and that we should move an agenda that's an independent voice for working people.
We think that it will actually involve more workers in the election process and understanding that voting matters.
GWEN IFILL: If the labor movement has lost a number of union households which are members over the years in the 50 years since the AFL-CIO came together, how do you know that that's really about organizing or recruitment or leadership and how do you know that it's not that the labor movement has lost its relevance?
ANNA BURGER: The reality is when you talk to working people they want a union. There's just not a union out there talking to them about how to form a union. And there are lots of obstacles.
The workforce has changed. Working conditions have changed. And sometimes many people are working multiple jobs to try to make a living. Sometimes it's been hard to reach workers. We believe that we have to address the changing economy and the changing workforce and organize workers in a different way.
GWEN IFILL: Anna Burger, thank you very much.
ANNA BURGER: Thank you for having me.
GWEN IFILL: And for the AFL-CIO response we are joined by Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Mr. Schaitberger, welcome. We just Anna Burger says she believes this impending split will actually strengthen the labor movement, not weaken it. What's your thought?
HAROLD SCHAITBERGER: Well, first, I want to emphasize that what Anna said, parts I won't take a strong issue with.
The fact of the matter is we are all pursuing the same goals. We all want to organize more workers. We want to better the lives and livelihood of working men and women in this country. We are all committed to ensuring that every worker has a good, affordable healthcare. We want strong, effective public school systems. We want to protect the attack that's going on right now with retirement systems throughout many industries and sectors; so our goals, I find, are not different at all.
I think our strategies, in fact, are somewhat different but I find it a little disingenuous, or at least I'm concerned when I hear that the coalition suggests that the federation has not changed, and the federation is basically following the path of its -- an old strategy.
The fact of the matter is that this week, we are addressing and we will be adopting a series of resolutions -- many of them incorporating a number of changes that several of us have been putting forward over the many months, including the five unions that right now either are out of the AFL as of today or suggesting that they may disaffiliate.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Schaitberger, I understand your point, but why is it if everything is so rosy, if in fact you agree on what it is and your differences over strategy are minor as you suggest, why this split today which seems -- which is pretty historic?
HAROLD SCHAITBERGER: Well it's historic and it starts to take on a flair of, quite frankly, a power grab. I think that there are unions in the coalition that want a change in the officers and the current leadership in the AFL-CIO.
And regardless of whether their principles or policies may be addressed and put forward which many of them are, they are not going to be satisfied unless they get to, obviously, run the federation or be able to select its officers. We have a very --
GWEN IFILL: Excuse me, I'm sorry. Back to my original question. Does that mean that the union, the AFL-CIO today as a result of this split is now weaker than it was?
HAROLD SCHAITBERGER: I don't think that it will be weaker. I'd be less than honest if I didn't emphasize that together and staying united would be much better for workers and much better for the movement.
But I don't view that the decision for a few unions to leave the federation is any type of dark day or a disaster. The federation will continue to do its work. The 52 unions that are affiliated with the AFL-CIO will continue to do their individual work. We are pursuing a strategy that we believe is the correct strategy to organize more workers.
Gwen, I suggest to you that if we have a stronger, more effective political program, which they view as somehow a negative, that is the strategy that's going to allow us to have meaningful labor law reform, to be able to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. That's going to make sure that we have the labor regulations we need to level the playing field between workers and employers.
GWEN IFILL: So you're saying --
HAROLD SCHAITBERGER: And to have appointments on labor boards that will be at least fair if not friendly to workers. That's the way you change the organizing --
GWEN IFILL: I'm sorry to keep interrupting you. I just wanted to follow up on what it is you just said. So you're saying when she says that this is about the AFL-CIO talking to politicians and not to workers, that that is a useful strategy for the AFL, preserving its political clout?
HAROLD SCHAITBERGER: Well, Gwen, first of all, the AFL-CIO and all of us talk to workers, our members, and workers that that should be our members all the time. We're talking about a fundamental strategy. Are you going to take more money and put it into what I would describe as traditional organizing campaign efforts?
Well, the AFL-CIO -- and we have put aside some money to do just that, to grow the organizing resources. But we also believe that the way you really enhance organizing is to elect political officials that are worker-friendly.
As opposed to Missouri, Kentucky and Indiana who elected three governors with the stroke of a pen that denied collective bargaining rights to hundreds of thousands of workers, successful political action and electing officials that will be worker- and union-friendly, that's the way to make sure that we have a fair shot and workers have a clear choice to belong to a union.
GWEN IFILL: And finally, I asked Anna Burger whether the precipitous decline in union membership might have something to do with union relevance. What's your answer to that?
HAROLD SCHAITBERGER: I think our labor movement and unions are as relevant as they ever have been.
I will say this to you in all candor, and we've put forward a resolution to address it, and that is we need to do a better job in how we communicate to our members and workers that should be our members. We need to be able to frame our message more clearly and more concisely. We need to be more easily understood.
GWEN IFILL: Okay.
HAROLD SCHAITBERGER: We have been right on the issues, whether it's minimum wage, whether it's jobs, whether it's outsourcing, whether it's opposing, you know, bad trade treaties. We're right on the issues.
I think that we're going to learn and we are in the process of changing the way we communicate so that workers understand even better the relevancy of this American labor movement.
GWEN IFILL: Thank you very much for joining us.
HAROLD SCHAITBERGER: Thank you, Gwen, for having me.