Union Gap

At AFL-CIO, a splitting issue for the nation's biggest labor organizations

Also, while the SEIU has had major organizing successes, its new partners boast far fewer accomplishments. In 2002, Hoffa was forced to pull the plug on a three-year campaign to win union representation for 8,000 employees at Overnite, a non-union trucking company. In New York, the carpenters' union has tried to target non-union firms but has been steadily hobbled by corruption charges. The union recently added to that reputation by taking in a rogue plasterers' union, Local 530, that law enforcement officials have long described as a low-wage, sweetheart union controlled by the Genovese crime family. The move came after the plasterers' local was put out of business by a federal court injunction that found it was stealing work from a legitimate tapers' union local.

But there's probably enough dirty laundry on both sides of the union dispute to cancel out such charges and countercharges. The more immediate issue is whether the new split helps—or hurts.

Michael Fishman, president of SEIU's Local 32B-J representing building service workers in the metro area, said the break was inevitable. "If you don't make a change you are going to end up with no labor movement," he said.

Still, he cautioned that it may be five years or more before the breakaway faction can measure its successes. "I'm hoping we can look forward to a campaign to unionize Wal-Mart and its 1.5 million workers," he said. Notoriously anti-union Wal-Mart is a tough nut to crack, however, and the new coalition may have to settle for lesser achievements. "Even if the result is just that Wal-Mart starts paying a little more, that would be a real accomplishment," said Ken Margolies of Cornell's labor institute. "If you can close the gap between Wal-Mart and the unionized stores, that helps even the playing field."

There are still other measures of success, said Larry Hanley, a labor activist from Staten Island, who is a vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union. "There's no question but that there's been a malaise in the ranks of labor that needs to be shaken up and to the extent [the new coalition members] are doing that, it's to the good," he said. "Regular union members are suddenly reading about the labor movement in the press, something they usually only read about with strikes or corruption cases. It is awakening an interest in labor and making people aware of our imminent demise, if we don't do something different."

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