Leaders from unions that splintered from the AFL-CIO this summer said Tuesday they are "optimistic" about the olive branch extended by the national federation’s president last week.
The tentative deal, announced by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney on Friday, would allow the breakaway unions to work with the AFL-CIO at the state level, yet remain distinct from the federation at the national level. The four unions, representing around 5.4 million members, broke off from the AFL-CIO in July in one of the movement’s largest schisms.
The unions that choose to partner with state federations would be required to pay state dues, but in return would be allowed full voting rights at state AFL-CIO meetings, said Sweeney. Union leaders call it a breakthrough from earlier discussions.
"At one point, they were proposing that we should pay, but not have any representation. This is a big step forward. Now we have a right to have a voice," said Alice Dale, vice president of the national Service Employees International Union, who is also the president of the Portland-based Local 49.
The split was a hot topic among the more than 200 delegates who gathered here Monday and Tuesday at the annual convention of the Oregon chapter of the AFL-CIO. Sweeney addressed the group on Monday.
The Service Employees International Union was the largest to break away from the national federation at its summer convention, sparking a domino effect. By the end of the convention, four unions including the Teamsters had bolted, robbing the AFL-CIO of nearly a third of its 13 million members.
In Oregon, the state federation lost 40 percent of its membership and an equally large share of its budget.
Both sides stress the agreement is tentative, but call it a positive step.
"You can interpret it as a step toward working together again," Sweeney said in a telephone interview Tuesday with the Associated Press, though he declined to say whether it could lead to full integration of the severed unions with the federation in the future.
Anna Burger, chairwoman of the Change to Win Coalition, the rival federation representing seven unions including the four that bolted this summer, ruled that out.
"We can be optimistic," she said, but "this has nothing to do with rejoining the AFL-CIO. It’s about the local level."
The unions broke off from the AFL-CIO charging that the nation’s largest labor federation was unable to stem declining membership. They argued that the AFL-CIO should shift emphasis from backing political candidates to organizing new members.
While the agreement may not heal the national rift, it lays the groundwork for a future reconciliation, said labor expert Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
"I think it’s a very big deal. It puts what unites labor ahead of what divides labor," Shaiken said. "He’s essentially saying: ‘We may have our differences, but there’s a lot we can still work on together."
The dispute has left a bitter taste for some labor leaders who gathered here for the Oregon AFL-CIO’s annual convention.
"It’s sad and they were wrong. Unity was a fundamental source of our strength," said AFL-CIO national organizing director Stewart Acuff. "They violated that and disrespected that unity in the house of labor."