Change to Win: A Union of One

Internal splits and infighting are nothing new when it comes to organized labor. In 2005, a new chapter in this colorful history was opened when seven unions split off from the AFL-CIO to form a rival coalition known as the Change to Win Federation.

Change to Win was portrayed as an entity that would restore organized labor’s declining fortunes by launching innovative organizing strategies, emphasizing organizing over politics, and shaking off the perceived lethargy that seemed to have taken hold at the AFL-CIO. As Anna Burger, the titular head of Change to Win stated on the day of its formation: “Today we say that workers are going to take their country back. Today we say the time has come for big ideas and bold thinking. Today will be remembered as the rebirth of union strength in America.”1

While seven unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters, the Carpenters, the Laborers, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), UNITE-HERE, and the United Farm Workers, representing more than five million workers were all members of the new federation, the most important figure in Change to Win was clearly Andy Stern, president of the SEIU.

Change to Win would not have existed without Stern.2 And some would suggest it was created primarily to benefit Stern and further his leadership aspirations. As longtime-labor columnist David Moberg wrote in 2005, the issue was less about whether or not the union movement needed reform as it was about who would lead it. “The question on everybody’s mind is why the split happened. Last year, when SEIU president Andy Stern declared that the AFL-CIO had to drastically change or his union would lead the effort to be something new, he said that the issue was the direction labor was heading, not who was at the helm. But by the end, the issue was also who was in charge.” 3

Change to Win was from the start dominated by the SEIU. Its first, and still current, Chair is Anna Burger, SEIU’s number two under Stern. Stern’s union has also given more than $5.7 million to support Change to Win, far more than any of the other unions in the federation.4 This domination of Change to Win seems to have paid dividends. Since 2005, SEIU’s membership has risen from about 1.5 million to more than 1.8 million and its annual receipts are up by about $75 million.5 The other unions involved in Change to Win, by contrast, have less reason to be pleased.

Membership in the Teamsters, for example, has remained flat, rising by just 0.4% since 2005. And in three of the four years since Change to Win was founded, the Teamsters spent more money than they took in and since 2005 have seen their overall assets drop by about $16 million.6 Membership in the Laborers union actually fell slightly since 2005. Moreover, annual receipts dropped by nearly $40 million, and in three of the four years since Change to Win was founded, expenditures exceeded receipts. 7

If association with Stern’s creation has proven a net negative for the Teamsters and the Laborers, it has been an unmitigated disaster for UNITE-HERE. Formed by a merger between textile workers (UNITE) and the hospitality workers (HERE), UNITE-HERE seemed to be a model for Stern’s and Change to Win’s new model for organizing. Rather than having two weak unions — one with money but few members, and one with members but lacking in funds — a single strong union would emerge with greater bargaining power and the heft to take on recalcitrant employers.

But it was not to be. From 2005 to 2008, UNITE-HERE’s membership dropped by almost 90,000.8 The union is now engaged in a very messy, and very public, divorce, with Andy Stern seeking to profit from the schism. During 2009, as UNITE-HERE disintegrated, some 150,000 former UNITE members formed a new entity called Workers United, and sheltered themselves under the welcoming arms of the SEIU.9 While Stern was only too happy to bring in the new members, he may have had his eye on a bigger prize: the $50 billion in assets at Amalgamated Bank, owned by UNITE.10 Ownership of the bank is now the subject of litigation with both Workers United and the remnants of UNITE-HERE claiming ownership. The rump of UNITE-HERE has now left Change to Win and re-affiliated with the AFL-CIO.11

While the rest of the Change to Win universe has been spared the type of catastrophe engulfing UNITE-HERE, the lack of drama has also summarized their experience in Stern’s orbit. The UFCW has been largely stagnant, seeing just a 0.6% membership increase since 2005. The United Farm Workers, a small union to begin with, has gotten a little bit smaller and little bit poorer, with drops in membership, assets and annual receipts since 2005. And the Carpenters Union, while still a very well-financed organization, saw a slight drop in membership since 2005.12 Like UNITE-HERE, the Carpenters has decided to part ways with Stern and disaffiliated from Change to Win in 2009.13

Far from proving to be a catalyst for a renewed labor movement, Change to Win seems to have been a vehicle for enhancing the power of Andy Stern. While the SEIU has profited handsomely from the new Federation, its other constituent members have had a very different experience. Those who thought they were on the cutting edge of a renewed labor movement have discovered the hard way that Change to Win was a union built for one.

1 Statement of Anna Burger on Change to Win’s Formation, 7/24/05, Change to Win Website
2 “A More Perfect Union,” David Fitch, Slate, 7/27/05
3 “Look Who’s Walking,” David Moberg, The Nation, 7/26/05
4 U.S. Department of Labor, Form LM-2 Filings, 2005-2008
5 Ibid
6 Ibid
7 Ibid
8 Ibid
9 “Unite Here even more split as co-leader resigns in a huff,” Michael Mishak, Las Vegas Sun, 5/31/09
10 “Union Fighting Over Bank,” New York Daily News, 2/20/09
11 “Unite-Here Returns to AFL-CIO After Helping Form Change to Win,” Matthew Murray, Roll Call, 9/17/09
12 U.S. Department of Labor, Form LM-2 Filings, 2005-2008
13 “A Call for Unions to Come Together,” Michael Mishak, Las Vegas Sun, 9/17/09