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Future of Nation's Largest Union in Doubt

The AFL-CIO (search) is doing all it can to minimize defections from the nationwide federation of almost 60 unions, but may not be able to prevent the departure of its largest union.

Some labor leaders fear the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union (search) is very likely to leave the labor federation in the coming weeks. With that concern clouding the AFL-CIO's upcoming national meeting late this month, federation leaders are eager to reach agreement on at least some differences with dissident unions.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney (search) said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press that the federation is doing everything it can to avoid losing any of the five unions that have formed a dissident coalition within the federation.

"The differences between the proposals for change are not too wide, and progress has been made on a couple of major issues," Sweeney said. "A split would be bad for workers."

The AFL-CIO has substantial differences with the five dissident unions, which represent more than 5 million of the federation's nearly 13 million members.

The dissidents — the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, Unite Here and Laborers' International Union — in mid-June formed an alliance called the Change to Win Coalition. The Carpenters union, which is no longer part of the AFL-CIO, joined the coalition in late June.

The dissident unions have proposed that:

—Fifty percent of dues to AFL-CIO be returned to unions to spend on organizing.

—Unions within the same industry be consolidated to increase their clout.

—The federation play a more aggressive role in setting standards for contract settlements.

—The federation make changes in the way the AFL-CIO is governed.

Sweeney on Monday pointed to two areas where the AFL-CIO is moving closer to the coalition.

Last week, top leaders of the AFL-CIO agreed on a plan intended to give the federation more power to ensure all unions are honoring industry standards on pay and benefits. The plan also sets new rules aimed at giving workers more power to organize unions that can take on large industries.

Sweeney also said the AFL-CIO and the coalition are getting closer on the size and amount of authority of the federation's executive committee.

Those in the coalition have been more pessimistic. After Sweeney expressed optimism two weeks ago that the federation and the unions could work out differences, the coalition said the meeting of the AFL-CIO's executive council "was another exercise in reinforcing the status quo." Eric Hauser, coalition spokesman, declined to comment Monday on Sweeney's characterization.

On some larger issues, the federation and some of the dissident unions remain far apart. Andrew Stern, president of SEIU, questioned last week whether Sweeney can make the necessary changes to reverse years of decline in union membership.

"His major demand is that John Sweeney leave, and I don't think that will happen," said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Sweeney described Stern as "very bright, a good organizer and a good leader. We have worked together through the years. It's painful to be going through what we're going through right now."

McEntee questioned whether the AFL-CIO will go along with a request that unions get a 50 percent rebate of their federation dues to use for organizing. Sweeney is already laying off about 100 employees, and if he went along with the coalition proposal to rebate more money, the AFL-CIO would have to shut down its Washington headquarters.

"It's the largest, strongest trade union center on the planet," McEntee said. "To make a move that would essentially cripple it is a bad move."

Stern has not been talking like someone planning to compromise.

"We have made our choice," he said late last week during a briefing. "The AFL is going to have to make theirs."