CHICAGO – Labor’s toughest negotiators are turning their bruising tactics on each other, playing a high-stakes game of chicken inside the AFL-CIO at a perilous time for the long-fading union movement.

A politically charged feud over the future of organized labor comes to a climax this week when nearly 1,000 delegates gather to celebrate the 50th year of the AFL-CIO.

Four of the federation’s 56 affiliates, representing about one-third of its dues-paying union members, are poised to leave Chicago before the convention begins Monday and, eventually, bolt the AFL-CIO itself.

A divided House of Labor threatens the Democratic Party, which relies on the AFL-CIO’s organizing powers on Election Day, and could affect the livelihoods of 13 million workers represented by the federation’s affiliates. Whether the civil war jolts organized labor from its slumber or hastens its decline is a subject of intense debate.

“Divided we fall,” said Gerald McEntee, president of a government workers’ union who hopes to keep the AFL-CIO intact.

On the flip side, Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union is leading an effort to overthrow his former mentor, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, and radically overhaul the federation. He has formed a coalition of seven reform-minded unions, including the four threatening to quit the AFL-CIO if their demands on not met.

“Workers need organizations that are new, modern and full of dynamic thinking for the 21st century, and to date the labor movement has not been able to change in a way that employers and the economy have been changing,” Stern said.

He and his allies argue that the AFL-CIO has failed to adjust to globalization, the decline of industrial-based jobs and the rise of the service economy. In addition to ousting Sweeney, the dissidents want to shift the federation’s focus from politics to recruiting new union members.

Sweeney counters that the AFL-CIO has reformed and will keep doing so. In the run-up to the convention, he bowed to several of Stern’s demands, save one: Sweeney has refused to resign his post, and is assured re-election this week.

While pledging to work through the weekend to avoid a split, Sweeney has started to look ahead to an AFL-CIO without Stern and his allies.

“It’s always painful to lose members, but we will maintain a strong federation with a substantial number of affiliates” if the dissidents leave, Sweeney said.

Barring an unexpected breakthrough, SEIU delegates are expected to vote Sunday to leave the convention, according to officials familiar with the situation, which they describe as changing by the hour. Three other dissent unions could follow suit – the Teamsters, along with food and commercial workers and hotel, restaurant, retail, textile and laundry employees.

Leaving the convention would not necesarily mean the unions are pulling out of the AFL-CIO, but it would be a major step toward a breakup.

“We’re getting down to the 11th hour,” Teamsters President James P. Hoffa said Saturday.

Even if they storm out of the convention, the dissident unions may delay their formal departure from the AFL-CIO for several weeks.

Hoffa sought to reassure union workers who might be worried about the impact of an AFL-CIO split. “If they belong to a strong union like the Teamsters or the UAW, it won’t have an impact on them,” Hoffa said.

When the AFL-CIO was formed 50 years ago, ending a rift that began in the 1930s, union membership was at its zenith. One of every three private-sector workers belonged to a labor group. Packed union halls were a social hub of most communities.

Now, less than 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized. Of the total work force, including government jobs, about 12 percent people belong to a union.

As membership roles declined, so did organized labor’s place in the country’s social fabric. Union halls are half-empty or closing. People are finding new ways to connect, through megachurches and Internet communities, for example.

Stern has pledged to reverse the trend by organizing the growing sectors of the economy, such as the service industry, while creating programs that make unions part of people’s lives, not just a bargaining agent.

Sweeney’s supporters say those are fine theories and should be tested inside a single, strong federation.

Without publicly taking sides, many prominent Democrats fear a divided labor movement would hurt their party because it relies on union money and manpower to turn out voters.

“It’s a disaster for the Democratic Party,” Democratic consultant Steve Elmendorf said.

Some Democrats are starting to accept the notion that regardless how the fight turns out, it may breathe life into the slumping labor movement.

“Dividing your forces, as any military man will tell you, is an extremely dangerous thing to do, but it’s also beyond dispute that organized labor needs re-energizing and this might be the kind of seminal event that does that,” Democratic consultant Jim Jordan said.

Fred Feinstein, labor expert at the University of Maryland, said the future of unions is at stake. “What happens will have an impact, one way or another, one how unions can – or don’t – function,” he said.


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