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Unite Here, AFL-CIO Go Separate Ways

Unite Here (search), a union of 450,000 workers in the apparel and hospitality industry, is leaving the AFL-CIO to join a group of dissident unions that want the organized labor movement to spend more time and money recruiting new members.

"It is time for the labor movement to make some changes," Unite Here General President Bruce Raynor (search) told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "After two years of internal debate, we have concluded it is the best course for the labor movement for us to join hands with six sister organizations and strike off in a direction of focusing more on organizing."

Raynor said workers' living standards are eroding and they lack adequate health care and retirement benefits.

Unite Here's general executive board voted unanimously Tuesday to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO (search), the giant labor federation of more than 50 unions that represented more than 13 million workers before the split.

Unite Here is joining the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Carpenters and the United Farm Workers in forming a dissident labor federation that has been calling itself the Change To Win Coalition. The Laborers International Union of North America (search) is also part of the new federation, but has not left the AFL-CIO.

The new federation represents about 6 million workers. In all, departures from the AFL-CIO represent about $32 million of the AFL's $120 million budget.

Unite Here has been paying about $4 million a year to be a member of the AFL-CIO, Raynor said, and much of that will now be spent on organizing workers in some of the fastest-growing parts of the economy.

"Leaving the AFL-CIO has nothing to do with saving money," said John Wilhelm (search), Unite Here's president of the hospitality industry workers. "It has to do with redirecting that money toward organizing."

When the AFL-CIO formed 50 years ago, union membership was at its zenith, with one of every three private-sector workers belonging to a labor group. Now, fewer than 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.