CHICAGO: The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other dissident unions that went to Chicago for the AFL-CIO's annual convention last week generated a slew of media attention by announcing their break from the labor federation.
But some labor officials aren't convinced the insurgents' PR efforts will revitalize the labor movement. They view the walkout as heavy on theatrics and weak on real reform.
The insurgent group, the Change to Win coalition, staged "a heavy PR campaign rather than a dialogue among the members," said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association, a powerful union player in California politics. "Rather than negotiation sessions, the Change to Win group was staging events."
Members of the Change to Win coalition contend they have been working to negotiate reform within the AFL-CIO. "We are now at a point where that conversation is over," said Ben Boyd, director of communications for SEIU, the lead union among the insurgents.
The coalition wishes the media coverage would focus more on the positive impact of the split on the labor movement - "a rebuilding and a rebirth as opposed to simply a divide," Boyd noted. "It's always the case that the press looks for what is the sexiest, most dramatic angle."
Boyd said he believes the AFL-CIO "did a masterful job of adopting our language, the language of reform. But their reforms would not lead to sweeping changes in the lives of workers in this country, and for that reason we are going to focus on a different strategy."
The current crisis reached a crescendo on July 24, when the SEIU, the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Unite Here said they would not take part in the AFL-CIO's annual gathering. The next day, the SEIU and the Teamsters announced they had officially disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO.
In its communications efforts, Change to Win successfully "acted like they had the moral high ground," even though SEIU president Andrew Stern had lined up only 30% of the delegates' votes at the convention, compared to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, who had 70% support, DeMoro said.
"The AFL-CIO needs to get a PR machine," she said. "I don't think they tried to manipulate public opinion, and that's precisely what Stern does. It looks like he's working with management consultants inside the SEIU."