Unions’ Merger Behind Deadline

Posted February 13, 2009 at 6:22pm

A top labor adviser to President Barack Obama and a central negotiator in union merger talks hinted late last week that it was unlikely that Change to Win and the AFL-CIO will finalize a deal by the target date of April 15.

“We’ve been having regular meetings and we’re going to continue to do that. … We hope to have something to show in the next couple of months,” former White House transition adviser and ex-House Democratic Whip David Bonior (Mich.) said, declining to reconfirm the April 15 deadline. “Is it going to be all wrapped up by then? I can’t tell you that at this point.”

Change to Win formed in 2005 when AFL-CIO affiliates broke away over a dispute involving the direction of the massive labor federation, which represents 11 million teachers, postal workers, firefighters and other workers.

According to the Change to Win Web site during the breakup, AFL-CIO leadership “assumes that if unions just do more of what we’re already doing and give more money to politicians, we can reverse our continuing loss of strength even as union members’ percentage of the workforce drops each year.”

“The new coalition will embark on an ambitious and urgently needed campaign to dramatically increase organizing among non-union workers and set new standards for cooperation and accountability in the union movement,” the group said on its Web site in June 2005, according to an online archive search.

The new group officially opened its doors in September 2005 and now represents 6 million workers through the Service Employees International Union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Laborers’ International Union of North America, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, the United Farm Workers of America, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, and UNITE HERE, which represents textile and service industry employees.

Bonior confirmed that leaders for the two powerful labor groups have had “a number of meetings” since discussions of a possible merger first started in early January. The former 13-term Member, however, declined to disclose specifics of the negotiations, other than that “we’ve moved forward” and that both SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney are both participating in the talks.

Meetings between the union bosses are expected to ramp up soon to as often as once a week.

“It’s a very positive attitude by everyone at the table,” Bonior said. “I don’t think there has been an impediment in these talks. … Everyone is working towards making it happen.”

Bonior also suggested that the union community historically has been prone to unproductive disagreements: “Like any federation, sector and institution of people, you can always do better.” But with a pro-labor White House and Democratic majorities in both chambers, the potentially hospitable environment is too ripe to pass up.

“We believe in solidarity and there’s a whole host of reasons to do it,” he said. “The unified labor movement is helpful in a variety of fronts — legislative front, political front and organizationally.”

“The movement missed the last economy — the information and Internet economy — to some extent,” he added. “Now everyone in the movement pretty much agrees with that [and] they’re determined not to miss this one.”

Burger and Sweeney recently have made high-profile joint lobbying trips to Capitol Hill in an attempt to sell Members on the Employee Free Choice Act — “card-check” legislation that played a central role in Senate races across the county last fall and now faces an uncertain future.

In the previous Congress, card-check legislation sailed through the House, passing 241-185, while the Senate failed to invoke cloture — a predictable outcome, Republicans argued, that allowed many Democrats to take a “free vote.”

At an SEIU event last Friday morning, Burger — who also is the chairwoman of Change to Win — declined to characterize the ongoing talks as merger negotiations; rather, the two unions — once sworn enemies — are exploring future collaboration.

“If we’re going to build a new labor movement for the 21st century, what would it be?” she said.

A union official, who declined to be named, said that recent collaboration on card check and organized labor’s huge push for Obama last year belies a lingering antagonism and lack of focus between the various labor groups, as was apparent when AFL-CIO affiliates jumped ship for Change to Win three and a half years ago.

“The rationale behind it would be to have a unified labor community, particularly with all of the political fights going on, so labor would appear to be unified and stronger,” the official said. “We’ve been working together through all of our political efforts … but it’s choppy.”

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.