WASHINGTON – As the once-powerful union federation, the AFL-CIO, approaches elections in July, it finds itself torn by internal power struggles, top-level resignations, litigation threats from the federal government and a conflict about the union's role in national politics.
According to some sources, the longstanding disputes are about to explode and the labor movement itself is in danger of coming apart at the seams.
"Sisters and brothers, it is time, it is so long overdue that we join with our union allies and either change the AFL-CIO or build something stronger that can really change workers' lives," said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, the nation's largest.
Stern said the movement isn't organized labor at the moment, its disorganized labor. SEIU and several other unions have been pushing for major reforms that they say officials at AFL-CIO headquarters have resisted. They include reforms such as more money for organizing and a fundamental change in the way unions approach politics.
"I think over the last several years we've gotten more and more focused on politics and particularly on Democratic politics. And I don't think that's what will grow our labor movement stronger. I don't think it's the kind of strategy that can win," Stern said.
Several union leaders have said that they think the critics may have a point when they argue that labor looks like "a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party."
"I think that can be a fair observation, and I think that's one of the reasons that many of us, and I'll speak for myself, have voiced a concern that we not be the appendage, if you will, of the Democratic party, nor be their ATM machine," said International Association of Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger, who campaigned with and for 2004 Democratic presidential candidateJohn Kerry (search).
Schaitberger said Democrats have long been supportive on labor issues but that does not mean a union should sell its soul to one party.
IAFF's political action committee, for instance, spends a third of its money to support Republicans, in part, Schaitberger argued, because it's the only way to get anything done in Congress.
"It would be, probably, 10 to 20 years before a Democratic Party would have what I would call an effective majority," he said.
Top officials at the AFL-CIO say they support some Republicans, but that Democrats have earned their allegiance.
"I think more often that not, Democrats support working people. So we support those politicians that support working people," said Rich Trumka, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer.
Trumka does acknowledge that the labor movement is engaged in a serious round of soul-searching, but he argues the AFL-CIO is already reforming.
"We know that we have to make major changes, and that's why we have gone through the biggest reorganization and made the greatest changes in the history of the AFL-CIO," he said.
The unions pushing reform want to spend three or four times more on organizing than AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney (search). Their goal is to outlay $60 million, about half of the federation's overall budget.
Under pressure, Sweeney has offered more money, though not enough to satisfy critics. Some union leaders have given up on Sweeney. Others say they are skeptical but want to give him one more chance.
But Trumka says threatening to break away will only make things worse.
"We'll never get there by dividing up and getting smaller, we'll only get there by coming together and being stronger through our solidarity," he said.
In any case, Sweeney's allies claim he has the votes to get re-elected, but without more reform, it may not be enough to avoid a nasty split in the labor movement.
Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Jim Angle.