WASHINGTON - Labor conventions almost by definition are raucous affairs, but the AFL-CIO national gathering next month in Chicago promises to be the stormiest since 1935, when John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers led a split in organized labor between so-called craft and industrial unions.
The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged in 1955 as a union powerhouse representing 35 percent of the American work force.
The 50th anniversary of that historic event will come in Chicago, but a breach that has been a long time coming may well cast a pall over the celebration. Leaders of five of the largest international unions representing nearly 40 percent of the AFL-CIO membership met here Tuesday and formed a dissident group that could turn the convention into a labor civil war.
Calling themselves the "Change to Win" coalition, the five unions are in a basic dispute with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney that could lead them to break away. Mr. Sweeney insists that the organization of 57 unions continues to focus on direct political action to gain labor's ends; the dissidents want to refocus on union organizing to boost a sharply eroding membership base.
The percentage of the work force that is unionized has plunged from that 1955 high point of 35 percent to about one-third of that, and less than 8 percent in the private sector. Mr. Sweeney ensured there would be a face-off by rejecting a proposal by Teamsters President James P. Hoffa that 50 percent of AFL-CIO members' dues be rebated to the unions for organizing as the best way to revitalize the labor movement.
Although Mr. Sweeney has strengthened organized labor's political activity, the federation has fallen short of its stated goal of recapturing the House and Senate for the Democrats and electing a Democratic president in the last two elections.
In addition to the Teamsters, the coalition members are the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), largest in the AFL-CIO; the United Food and Commercial Workers Union; the Laborers' International Union of North America; and Unite Here, the clothing and hotel workers union.
Earlier, the dissidents considered challenging Mr. Sweeney for the AFL-CIO presidency but concluded they didn't have the votes. Several of the dissident leaders said they have been authorized by their executive committees to "disaffiliate" from the international federation but haven't decided whether to do so before next month's convention.
One problem, the dissidents said, is that although the five unions constitute about 35 percent of the 13 million AFL-CIO members, they will have less than 9 percent of the delegates at the convention. An AFL-CIO spokesman said, however, the five will have much greater voting power when unions vote by membership strength, which is possible under the rules.
But an SEIU spokesman countered that 30 percent of delegates will be required for a roll-call vote unless Mr. Sweeney decides to call one himself, which the spokesman said was "highly unlikely."
Joseph Hanson, president of the food and commercial workers, when asked what would happen if the coalition did not prevail in Chicago next month, said: "We're not going to let the status quo stand." And Terence M. O'Sullivan, president of the laborers' union, said, "We cannot be content with continued failure."
The dissident leaders, particularly Andrew L. Stern, president of the SEIU, who has spearheaded the new coalition, said it is determined to resurrect the labor movement through intensified organizing, regardless of what happens at the convention.
As political forces in the country, the AFL and the CIO separately and together have become a critical, some would say indispensable, element in whatever successes the Democratic Party has enjoyed. But organized labor's decline since the heady days of the postwar era has dictated the internal soul-searching, which is now on the brink of open division.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.