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Major Labor Unions Leave the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

I’m Steve Ember with IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

Organized labor in America split apart this week. On Monday, two major unions announced that they are cutting ties with the nation's biggest labor group, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. The two unions are the Service Employees International and the Teamsters.

This was supposed to be a week to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. at its convention in Chicago. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. is the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Its president, John Sweeney, says a divided labor movement hurts the hopes of working families for a better life.

On Friday Mister Sweeney got more bad news, this time from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Its leaders said they are taking their more than one million members out of the federation.

Until Monday, the A.F.L.-C.I.O represented fifty-six unions with thirteen million members. It will lose more than four million of them with the loss of the three unions. Others could follow.

The Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters are part of a group called the Change to Win Coalition. This is a group of seven unions. Labor experts say the coalition has brought more than half the new members into the A.F.L.-C.I.O. in the past ten years.

Andrew Stern is president of the service employees union. Mister Stern says the American economy has changed but the labor movement has not. To survive, he says, unions must expand efforts to organize workers in areas like health care. Mister Stern says the Change to Win Coalition can appeal to more workers than the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

Officials of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. say the dissident unions are trying to seize power.

The dissidents say the federation spends too much on political campaigns. They say it does not spend enough on efforts to stop losses in union membership. They want John Sweeney to retire.

But on Thursday [correction: Wednesday] Mister Sweeney won a fourth term as president. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. this week also approved reform measures including more than twenty million dollars for local organizing efforts.

Fifty years ago, one-third of privately employed workers were in a union. By nineteen eighty-three, it was down to twenty percent. Now it is around half that. Unions were strongest when there were plenty of manufacturing jobs. Service-related jobs are now the big target for labor organizers.

But organized labor has lost much of its political power, traditionally tied to the Democratic Party. Unions have lost one battle after another. They failed to stop the North American Free Trade Agreement. And, just this week, Congress gave final passage to the Central American Free Trade Agreement, though by only two votes.

CAFTA will lower trade barriers for American exports to six countries. Unions expressed concern for American jobs and for Central American labor protections.

To learn more about the labor movement, listen to THIS IS AMERICA on September fifth -- Labor Day in the United States.

IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English was written by Nancy Steinbach. Our reports are on the Web at I’m Steve Ember.