Laborers to Leave Change to Win, Rejoin AFL-CIO

The divorce within the American labor movement five years ago is fast approaching reconciliation. Last Friday, the Laborers International Union of North America, or LIUNA, announced it would be rejoining the AFL-CIO following its spell as a member of a breakaway federation, Change to Win. The move is expected to be complete in October. This makes the third union to have journeyed home; last year former Change to Win members UNITE HERE and the Carpenters rejoined. The latest move speaks of organized labor’s reenergized focus on securing congressional passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and other pro-union legislation. It also underscores the extent to which Change to Win from the start has been a hobbyhorse of Andrew Stern, who this spring retired as president of the rival federation’s lead union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

LIUNA, which represents around 800,000 construction and related workers in the U.S. and Canada, was one of several unions that joined the Service Employees in a walkout on the eve of the AFL-CIO’s 50th anniversary convention in Chicago in July 2005. The Laborers, along with the SEIU, the Teamsters, UNITE HERE, the Food & Commercial Workers, the Carpenters (which had left the AFL-CIO in 2001), and the United Farm Workers, convened in St. Louis that September to announce the formation of a new labor federation, Change to Win. The rival organization would serve as a new model in union organizing and collective bargaining, with a greater accent on boosting membership, cooperating with employers, and keeping dues low. By focusing more on growth and less on lobbying and research – AFL-CIO President John Sweeney allegedly epitomized the latter – Change to Win would restore organized labor to its glory years.

Andrew Stern made clear that his own SEIU, the nation’s fastest-growing union, was the driving force behind Change to Win. His kickoff speech in St. Louis heralded the possibility of a major power shift within organized labor. SEIU Secretary-Treasurer and close Stern ally Anna Burger would chair the new federation. LIUNA formally left the AFL-CIO in June 2006, believing the move was the best for long-term growth.

Things didn’t quite work out according to plan. Member unions had to confront the reality that boosting membership could, and at times did, occur at the expense of quality contracts. And the economy tanked starting in late 2007. Millions of Americans joined the ranks of the unemployed, with the construction sector being hit particularly hard. The John Wilhelm-led faction of UNITE HERE (hotel, restaurant & clothing employees) announced at the AFL-CIO convention last September in Pittsburgh that it would be rejoining. Not long after, the Carpenters rejoined. Change to Win now was short two unions.

Now the Laborers have come back into the AFL-CIO fold. LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan thinks the move is the right one. “Now more than ever, working people and our country need a united union movement,” he said. “Despite the historic success of the 2008 federal elections, too much is not getting done on Capitol Hill. A united union movement can better focus Congress – and particularly the U.S. Senate – on helping to lead our nation, rather than being locked in inaction.” O’Sullivan isn’t bitter at all about the years in Change to Win. If anything, he says, the experience was beneficial: “The LIUNA of today is different from the one that left the AFL-CIO, and that’s in part due to the strength of Change to Win’s Strategic Organizing Center. Neither our ongoing organizing efforts in weatherization and residential construction – the biggest campaigns we have ever launched – would have been launched without Change to Win.”

Change to Win isn’t likely to regain its initial momentum. “It’s an organization that never really got off the ground,” noted Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at University of California, Santa Barbara. “Everything Change to Win did could have been done inside the AFL-CIO,” adding that the rival federation was a vehicle for Andrew Stern’s own ambitions. If Change to Win is traveling light these days, the AFL-CIO looks primed for a massive push. “We are very excited that the labor movement is headed toward becoming more unified just as we need it the most,” remarked AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who replaced the retiring John Sweeney last September. The goal remains the same: More power for unions and less power for individual workers not wishing to join them.