WASHINGTON – For more than a century, the American labor movement has hit high tides of influence and power, as well as breakwaters of corporate resistance and internal divisions.
Today, the movement has slammed into both, and coupled with declining membership, faces a crossroad driven by its own interests.
"A drastic, radical movement needs to happen if we are going to get growing again," said Richard Greer (search), spokesman for the Laborers International Union, one of five unions pressing the powerful AFL-CIO labor federation for serious change.
"Working people are facing more assaults to their standard of living than any other time in their history," while the number of households represented by unions is nearly the same as it was at the turn of the 20th century, indicating just how much union participation has declined, Greer said.
Fifty years ago, unions represented a third of American workers. Now, they represent 12.5 percent and an even smaller percentage among private sector employees.
"It's been dramatic. There is a real threat," said Greer.
Some of the most powerful unions in the AFL-CIO's 57-member federation have promised to step out from under the union umbrella if the federation doesn't update its outlook. The threat has been led by the largest union, the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union, and four others who have formed the Change to Win Coalition (search) in an attempt to move the AFL-CIO (search) out of its niche.
Next week is the AFL-CIO's 50th anniversary convention in Chicago. The coalition says the AFL-CIO must embrace a number of reforms laid out for debate during the convention if it doesn't want to see an exodus. Coalition members say they also prefer to infuse new blood in the leadership of the AFL-CIO, rather than see President John Sweeney, who is running unopposed, re-elected for a third term.
"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," SEIU President Andy Stern said in May.
The coalition of SEIU, the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Unite Here, the Laborers and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, which broke off from the AFL-CIO in 2001, has a combined membership of more than 5.5 million.
While it is not a majority of the AFL-CIO's 13 million-member alliance, the new coalition could shake the foundation of the federation if it were truly to leave, said Brian Obach, professor of labor studies at the University of New York State at New Paltz.
"That's going to leave the AFL-CIO very weakened," Obach said. "The implied, underlying single theme would be that the Change to Win Coalition would be a more effective federation. If that's the case, the remaining unions would see themselves as even more marginalized."
Union representatives say aggressive corporate union busting, globalization and weak labor laws are primarily to blame for the current impasse. They cite Wal-Mart, whom they call the biggest union buster, as a symbol of their recent defeats. The giant retail chain, which employs nearly 1.2 million workers throughout the United States, is not unionized.
"The status quo can no longer stand," said James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters, last month.
The coalition has set out some demands, including better mobilization against the likes of Wal-Mart, increased organizing, pooling resources and merging unions in similar sectors to increase bargaining power, streamlining the national staff and board and putting as much emphasis on expanding membership as it does on political campaigning.
"Overall, I think unions would say, 'Yes, corporate America has gotten too much of an upper hand,' that workers who want to join a union are having a much harder time than 20 years ago," said Greer. "We haven't really spoken to that. So we've been pushing a platform for change."
Sweeney has no intention of going anywhere, and AFL-CIO representatives say they have been working hard on reforms already.
"The unions have called for a change, but when you look at what they're proposing as compared to what President Sweeney has proposed, there is not much of a difference," said AFL-CIO spokeswoman Lane Windham.
Sweeney has already downsized the national staff and has proposed $22.5 million in new organizing money in response to the concerns, she added. The federation president also retains the backing of the remaining major unions in the federation, including the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees, with 1.4 million members.
"Forming this coalition is a step in the wrong direction because it's the first step towards a truly divided labor movement," said AFSCME President Gerald McEntee in a recent statement. "We're stronger with them. They'll be weaker without us."
Coalition representatives say more transparency and accountability from the Washington headquarters is needed. They complain that the political lobbying, particularly in favor of Democrats, has made the AFL-CIO indebted to one party with no visible payback.
"I think that's one of he 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 card," said International Association of Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger.
According to Windham, about $36 million of the AFL-CIO's annual budget of $125 million goes to voter mobilization and education efforts, though the political action committees can raise money for specific campaigns.
Greer said that the coalition does not advocate reducing the political budget, but increasing organizing resources by cutting costs at the top.
Labor critics say they believe the current debate within the labor movement will have little effect overall.
"I think many workers feel that union membership is not relevant," said Justin Hakes, spokesman for the anti-union group, the National Right to Work Foundation. Hakes said workers today may not agree with "one-size-fits-all" contracts and compulsory dues that go to political campaigns in which they have little say.
"But that doesn't mean their political clout is going away. Big labor continues to yield massive political muscle," Hakes added.
FOX News' Jim Angle contributed to this report.