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Unions Form Breakaway Labor Group

Five dissident unions moved a step closer Wednesday to breaking up the AFL-CIO, forming a coalition aimed at pressuring federation president John Sweeney (search) and boosting labor's dwindling ranks.

The possible weakening or even demise of the organization has leaders of the Democratic Party nervous because the party depends on the AFL-CIO to mobilize millions of dollars and turn out voters.

As the parent organization for dozens of union affiliates, the AFL-CIO has some 13 million members. The unions in the new coalition represent about five million of those workers.

The Change to Win Coalition is comprised of unions that have made no secret of their unhappiness with Sweeney, who once headed the Service Employees International Union (search) -- one of three unions threatening to bolt the federation.

The other two threatening to leave are the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (search) and Unite Here (search), a union representing hotel and restaurant workers.

The complaining unions say the AFL-CIO has wasted time and money on politics and has not done enough to combat a steady decline in union membership since the heyday of labor leaders like George Meany, Walter Reuther and John L. Lewis in the mid-20th century.

"We are frustrated with the AFL-CIO," said Teamsters President James P. Hoffa. "We believe we must grow to be effective, to be effective politically, economically, and everywhere else in the country. And that is not happening."

The new five-union alliance, which also includes the Laborers' International Union, comes just weeks before the AFL-CIO's July convention, during which Sweeney is expected to win another 4-year term.

Sweeney reacted, saying that he has pledged millions of dollars for an organizing drive. "Now is the time to use our unity to build real worker power, not create a real divide that serves the corporations and the anti-worker politicians," he said.

While many Democrats worry the current turmoil could hurt the party, some suggest there could be benefit.

"I think we need some fresh blood and ideas in this party," said Jim Duffy, a Democratic strategist. "Anything that shakes up moribund institutions is good."

SEIU president Andrew Stern said the AFL-CIO does not have an effective strategy to increase union ranks. The new coalition, he said, would concentrate on boosting membership in certain, focused sectors such as manufacturing, health care and transportation.

SEIU is the nation's largest union with 1.8 million members.

Richard Hurd, professor of labor studies at Cornell University, said the coalition will have strength in numbers, but he added, "I'm not sure that that, in and of itself, is enough to turn the labor movement around."

At the height of its power in the mid-20th century, organized labor in the United States had about a third of the workers across the country as members. That has plummeted to about 12 percent today.

The unions did not detail plans for how the coalition would be financed