Rethinking their split four years ago, unions are exploring reunification.

In the late afternoon of January 7, fourteen union leaders gathered around a big oval table in the top-floor conference room of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ (UFCW) Washington headquarters to talk about how to unify the fragmented American labor movement. The four-hour discussion with a catered light dinner was chaired by labor-friendly former Representative David Bonior and was attended by leaders of the AFL-CIO, the breakaway federation Change to Win (CTW) and the independent National Education Association (NEA).

That evening’s discussion led to more talks, and participants cautiously hope they can unite to better take advantage of the political openings for revival of the labor movement. Assembling all unions into one “house of labor” may not come quickly, if at all, but by early April the Bonior group had decided to keep working–as the National Labor Coordinating Committee–perhaps to make significant steps toward unity at the September AFL-CIO convention.

The 2005 split in the AFL-CIO grew in part out of frustrations in dark times: George W. Bush and a Republican Congress had been re-elected, and union membership was shrinking, slipping to 12.5 percent of wage workers and provoking fears that unions would sink to a point of no return. Unions fought over how the AFL-CIO should operate, whether unions needed to be merged and reorganized by industry, and whether the AFL-CIO spent too much time and money on politics (and other tasks) and not enough on organizing.

Now opportunities for progress are pushing those unions back together. Organized labor played a major role in November’s Democratic victories. Unions have even expanded membership slightly in the past two years. The time is ripe for broad legislative gains, from universal health insurance to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make it easier for workers to form unions (though that bill faces obstacles in the Senate).

“We’ve just come off elections, and we’ve seen our collective work elect Barack Obama and a Congress more in line with the needs and aspirations of working people,” says American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, part of the Bonior group. “That unity produced something, but it needs to improve every day between elections. A unified labor movement will better serve working families than when we’re separated. When we fight together, we’re stronger.”

Unions create central organizations with hopes of realizing power through solidarity at all levels, from local communities to the global economy. But unity is not always a quick fix for labor’s challenges.

Even after the 1955 merger of the AFL and the CIO unified most of labor, unions left and rejoined the federation, split over political endorsements, battled over organizing turf, ignored federation decisions they didn’t like and often failed to practice elementary labor solidarity effectively (for example, when President Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ strike). But the loose federation did pull unions together on many tasks and provided a voice–though an increasingly stale, conservative and remote one–for American workers.

In 1995, following Republican Congressional victories, passage of NAFTA and Clinton’s failed healthcare reform, John Sweeney won the first contested election in a century to lead the federation. He promised a new voice and more organizing, smarter political work, broader coalitions, more progressive policies–with militancy, when needed, to back them up and a reinvigorated federation from top to bottom (the often-ignored central labor councils).

But Sweeney had trouble getting every union to march to the same tune, and despite huge improvements in the federation’s coordination of political work, victory was elusive, especially in the first six Bush years. Several union leaders complained that the federation was an oversize bureaucracy run more by staff and officers than by the unions that make up the federation.

The 2005 revolt that produced Change to Win was led by the Service Employees, Sweeney’s old union, with major support from the Teamsters, Laborers, UNITE HERE (a merger of garment and hotel unions) and UFCW. With little engagement of members or secondary leaders, it was a rebellion of union presidents, many of whose demands had been promoted in weaker form by Sweeney. But the rebels argued that the AFL-CIO was too focused on politics and not focused enough on organizing.

Leaders of local unions and state and city labor federations resisted the split, which threatened their joint work on politics, economic development and other issues. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win agreed that locals of the breakaway unions could pay dues for “solidarity charters” in state and city federations, and eventually four-fifths of CTW locals signed up. At the national level, unions in the two federations worked together on elections to varying degrees, but in most localities the links were even tighter.

Change to Win put three-fourths of its money into a Strategic Organizing Center and did not work in many of the areas the AFL-CIO tries to address, from public policy to legal affairs. Its smaller leadership group met regularly to strategize. Faced with reduced income, the AFL-CIO pared operations, focusing on politics and on helping unions beef up organizing programs.

Despite their stated intentions when they abandoned the AFL-CIO, the CTW unions, especially SEIU, subsequently became even more involved in politics. In turn, AFL-CIO unions expanded their organizing. CTW–despite some notable successes–also found that changing to win on a large scale was slow. “It’s been a lot harder to get there than we thought and hoped,” CTW executive director Chris Chafe says. So both federations have done comparably well overall organizing, and both have gained disproportionately by organizing quasi-public workers (like homecare workers), not in the tougher private sector.

Thanks to the split, a lot of effort had to go into coordinating work across federations. And the federations were at times at odds–for example, until recently on immigration (even within CTW). But the leaders of the federations and individual unions often met. At one such lunch in Brussels nearly two years ago during a global union council, presidents Joe Hansen of UFCW/CTW and Larry Cohen of the Communications Workers of America/AFL-CIO began talking about what a labor federation would look like if it was started from scratch.

They continued their talks, as did other groups of leaders, but election work pushed aside talk of a new federation, even as divisions developed in both federations. (CWA was itself part of a four-union alliance that was partly independent of the AFL-CIO political operation). After the election, as unions were involved with the transition of power, Cohen and Hansen contacted Bonior, who chairs American Rights at Work, a broad-based advocacy group through which both federations champion EFCA. They got support from CTW, invited the National Education Association to join and called the first meeting.

The NEA’s participation is important. The nation’s biggest union, with a presence in every state, the NEA has become more a part of the labor movement in recent decades: in four states it has merged with the AFT; many city chapters have joined the AFL-CIO’s central labor councils; and it works much more closely with other unions on politics. But as an independent, strongly democratic union, it brings a fresh perspective without the scars of schism.

“In any conversation about where the labor movement should be headed, a union of 3.2 million should be part of it,” says NEA president Dennis Van Roekel. “We’ve had a good, frank discussion and learned about each other. Regardless of how it ends, it will pave the way for more cooperation.”

The talks started by defining the mission of the labor federation. “The only consensus was to focus on public policy, legislation and political mobilization and action,” Cohen says. Or, as Hansen puts it, “the main role of the federation is to be the voice that speaks with authority at the federal level.”

Surprisingly, since Sweeney pushed unions to organize, and CTW wanted even more federation resources for organizing, the Bonior group has initially downplayed a role for the federation in organizing. But there does seem to be interest in establishing one–or multiple, possibly sectoral–“strategic organizing centers.” In any case, Cohen says, the emerging plan “encourages joint work, not just on organizing but on bargaining.”

Some CTW leaders have said that reunification requires a new organization, not a return to the AFL-CIO. But Sweeney wrote in an early April internal memo that “the AFL-CIO will not be disbanding to start anew, it will not be subordinating itself to or merging itself into any other organization, and it will not be abandoning its historic mission of fighting for economic, social, political, and workplace justice at every level.”

Many AFL-CIO union leaders think the federation just needs reform, not rejection. Although hopeful for reunification, Electrical Workers (IBEW) president Ed Hill says, “I don’t see changing everything to accommodate a few people.” But some CTW leaders think resistance to change could stymie unification. Too many leaders, Hansen told his union, “are not fully engaged regarding the fundamental change necessary to reshape our movement.”

Most of the thorny details of structure, governance, finance and leadership remain wide open or have been deliberately postponed as leaders discuss what they want a federation to do. But the result, if there is one, will almost assuredly be leaner than the AFL-CIO, more ambitious than CTW and will borrow features from both. The group seems inclined to give more control over federation affairs to an executive committee made up of leaders of ten to twelve of the biggest unions, with another five members elected to represent the smaller unions, Hansen says. The committee would meet frequently, supplemented by periodic meetings of larger groups, including most or all of the nation’s unions. Although there was a proposal for having rotating chairs and an executive director, there appears to be more support for an elected president. Small unions objected strongly in 2005 to SEIU president Andy Stern’s insistence that they all merge into larger ones. Stern still seeks those mergers, but the Bonior group has not discussed the topic much, and Cohen says there’s agreement that all unions would enter the federation with their jurisdictions intact. But smaller unions worry about losing their voice in a reformed federation. And it’s true that the balance of power in the emerging sketch of a federation would shift to the big unions with the majority of union members.

Even some AFL-CIO affiliate leaders think a new federation needs to be leaner. “We need a federation that’s inclusive, focused and efficient,” Steelworkers president Leo Gerard says. “We can’t be everything for everyone, and sometimes we try to do too much.”

Indeed, a group of AFL-CIO union leaders, acting through the federation’s executive committee, is reviewing what the AFL-CIO should do in advance of the convention. Firefighters president Harold Schaitberger thinks reforms might induce CTW unions to reaffiliate. “You build it–and well–and they will come,” he says. Some internal group proposals parallel those in the Bonior group, and in March the AFL-CIO executive council endorsed both.

Now the focus is on what unions want from the federation. Soon that may shift to what should be left out, especially since some unions, like the Teamsters, strongly object to the higher AFL-CIO dues (65 cents per member, compared with 25 cents for CTW). But cutbacks, including those already made, still leave a tough financial problem: legacy costs of retired AFL-CIO staff.

Sweeney’s imminent retirement means that the talk of reform and unification comes at a time when the AFL-CIO will elect a new leader. The Bonior group is rigorously trying to keep the issues separate, but the choice of leader could affect negotiations. “To me, the last discussion is who’s going to run it,” says Laborers president Terry O’Sullivan. “If we agree on budget, structure, roles and responsibilities, then we can get to it.” Sweeney has endorsed secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka as his successor, and despite reservations some leaders express about him, no challengers have emerged.

Not every union leader is enthused about unification, especially if it involves what they see as concessions to SEIU’s Stern, whose actions irritate many of his peers. “The Bonior committee is about making fundamental changes to make [reunification] palatable to Andy Stern,” complains Machinist president Tom Buffenbarger, even though “things have only gotten worse for the defectors.”

Indeed, some leaders worry that internal union battles could imperil reunification. The conflict among leaders of UNITE HERE has intensified as John Wilhelm–the former HERE president, who recently took control of the merged union–has accused Stern and SEIU officials of encouraging the old UNITE faction to disaffiliate, merge into SEIU and compete with Wilhelm’s union to organize hotel, casino and food workers (and potentially move into UFCW’s jurisdiction as well). So Wilhelm is seeking to reaffiliate UNITE HERE with the AFL-CIO.

Then there’s the ongoing California strife in SEIU. There, former SEIU leader Sal Rosselli claims that a solid majority of his big, trusteed healthcare local now wants to disaffiliate from SEIU and join a new National Union of Healthcare Workers. Meanwhile, SEIU blocked some decertification votes and accuses Rosselli of various kinds of malfeasance. Rosselli, in turn, says SEIU harasses dissidents, even as more workers–including some from other California locals–petition to leave SEIU.

In case things weren’t complicated enough, SEIU and its archrival, the California Nurses Association (a Rosselli supporter), recently agreed to a three-and-a-half-year cooperative national experiment organizing hospitals.

Even if unions can unite despite these squabbles, some union strategists argue that the current talks ignore possibilities for a bigger rank-and-file role in the federation (as in Canada); attend too much to parochial needs of the big unions rather than forging an organization that speaks for all workers; and focus more on short-term goals than a long-run strategy for labor. Despite forging broad agreements on political goals–such as EFCA and immigration and healthcare reform–unions remain divided, and confused, about long-term strategy. And while the labor movement influenced President Obama’s response to the economic crisis, it has not offered a comprehensive progressive alternative program to keep pressure on the administration.

If unions have focused much energy on EFCA, it is because, as the Communications Workers’ Cohen argues, strengthening organizing and collective bargaining is an essential first step toward a more democratized and revitalized economy. “If you have nothing but markets,” he says, “you end up with nothing. If you don’t have a society with workers at the table [at work and in politics], then they can’t join in the debate.” But if pressure from labor and its allies can’t bring about labor law reform in this Congress, unions will need unity on grassroots mobilization and militancy even more urgently to break out of their impasse.

Unification of most, if not all, unions is likely to involve some transitional steps, many participants believe. NEA’s deliberative process, for example, means it would take at best a year or two for it to decide, and the Carpenters–now barely participating in CTW–are unlikely to embrace unification soon. And if unions don’t reach some agreement by July, it will be hard for the AFL-CIO to implement any needed changes at the September convention.

Still, hopes for a more rapid reunion run strong. “I’d like to see the labor movement reunited,” says Sweeney. “I take it personally. I’ll do my damnedest for reunification.”