Rifts threaten breakaway union coalition
The 2-year-old Change to Win group's failure to achieve consensus may test its viability.
By Joe Mathews
Times Staff Writer
March 27, 2007
CHANGE TO WIN, THE FEDERATION of unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO nearly two years ago, faces internal divides that could threaten its own viability, according to documents obtained by The Times.
Change to Win includes seven major unions representing 6 million workers, about 1 million of them in California: the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, United Farm Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers International Union of North America, the Service Employees International Union and Unite Here, which represents textile and hotel workers.
In splitting with the AFL-CIO, which represents 10 million workers, Change to Win unions pledged to build a new labor movement that would focus less on presidential politics and more on aggressively increasing labor power through organizing.
The split is so new that assessing its effect is difficult. But the internal documents suggest that the new coalition is fragile.
In a three-page letter sent last month to his fellow Change to Win leaders, Joseph Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, wrote that the unions need to "resolve issues that I see as a threat to the existence of Change to Win."
He also declared that his union would withdraw a promised $200,000 contribution to an effort by the coalition to put pressure on Wal-Mart by informing Change to Win members about the company's practices.
"I am concerned that there is an increasing drift away from our growth partnership into one more bureaucratic and similar to the autocratic and less productive aspects of the AFL-CIO," Hansen wrote.
In an interview, Hansen, a former meat cutter from Milwaukee, said that a March 6 meeting with other union presidents had allayed some, but not all, of his concerns. His union, he said, "is fully committed to Change to Win," despite the plan to withdraw the $200,000 contribution to the Wal-Mart effort.
In a March 5 memo, Anna Burger, chairwoman of the Change to Win leadership, said the group was making progress but also acknowledged "serious concern about the future and direction" and raised her own issues about the group's failure to implement its plans.
In interviews, union officials downplayed the concerns, saying that although there are disagreements, any start-up coalition of powerful institutions would encounter similar problems.
Bruce Raynor, general president of Unite Here, said the seven unions left the AFL-CIO so they would be free to disagree and pursue their own courses on issues.
"I don't think there's any threat to the future of Change to Win," Raynor said. "The principle of Change to Win never was that we would all agree on every policy issue."
When it formed in 2005, Change to Win said it would focus on organizing and would develop joint strategies on three issues: retirement security, healthcare and immigration.
The documents make plain that two years later, the organization cannot achieve consensus on any of those issues.
Burger, who declined an interview request, also outlined other Change to Win shortcomings, including the failure to follow through on planned outreach to immigrants and Latinos.
On healthcare, the position of SEIU and its president, Andy Stern, has rankled other Change to Win unions. Last month, Stern announced that SEIU would join with corporations including Wal-Mart to develop a plan for universal health coverage by 2012.
In his letter, Hansen called SEIU's partnership with Wal-Mart "a publicity stunt that Wal-Mart orchestrated."
Stern declined to be interviewed. A spokesman for his union said Stern had discussed the issue with other Change to Win leaders and that they were united in their goals.
The documents also raise questions about whether Change to Win is unified enough to have an effect on the 2008 presidential elections.
During a meeting of Change to Win leaders described in documents, union officials agreed to a 10-cent-per-member monthly assessment on all unions for political purposes but were unable to come up with an endorsement process or a strategy for how to spend it.
Without unity, Hansen wrote in his letter, conflicts between individual unions and Change to Win "are not just possible but probable."