Run Off the Rails: The Change to Win Federation Four Years Later

When the Change to Win Federation was formed in 2005, the seven unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO to create the new group were filled with optimism. At a July 25, 2005, press conference, the enthusiasm for their new creation was palpable. Declared SEIU president Andy Stern, “Our goal is not to divide the labor movement, but to rebuild it — so working people can once again achieve the American Dream.” 1 Fellow union president James Hoffa of the Teamsters stated, “Today’s decision means that we have chosen a course of growth and strength for the American Labor Movement based on organizing new members. … This is just the beginning of a new era for America’s workers.”2 Not to be outdone, UFCW president Joe Hansen proclaimed, “We have an historic opportunity and obligation to organize and lead a new movement for the 21st century.” 3

Four years later, the rhetoric is no longer grand and the organization that sparked it has lost its luster. Change to Win has simply failed to live up to the misplaced hopes once put into it, and is now just a shell of its former self.

Early on there were doubts as to whether the new Federation would succeed. Joseph McCartin, a labor history professor at Georgetown University, summed up this sentiment in 2006: “A year later, it’s not clear the split has made much of a difference in improving conditions for labor…The verdict is still out on whether the split was good for the union movement.”4 A look at Change to Win’s financial disclosures shows that not only has the Federation failed to improve conditions for labor, but that the walls of its own house are crumbling down around it.

In 2006, the first year Change to Win filed financial disclosures with the U.S. Department of Labor, the group claimed more than 5.3 million members. Their most recent filing, in 2008, shows less than 4.8 million members, a decline of nearly 11 percent.5 In 2006, Change to Win listed $11.7 million in assets, a figure that dropped to $8.8 million in 2008.6 During that same time, liabilities soared by more than 130%, from about $550,000 in 2006 to more than $1.25 million in 2008.7 Annual receipts have plummeted, falling from $18.7 million in 2006 to just $6.5 million in 2008.8 In 2006, revenues far exceeded expenditures, but that ratio has since flipped, and Change to Win spent more than it took in in 2008. 9 To sum up, the Federation is bleeding members and money.

Change to Win is also starting to lose its constituent unions. First out the door was UNITE- HERE, which left in March 2009.10 Adding insult to injury, UNITE-HERE subsequently rejoined the AFL-CIO in September.11 Later in 2009, the Carpenters union announced that it, too, was departing the Federation.12 In 2008, the Laborers announced that they would participate in the AFL-CIO’s political program rather than Change to Win’s, and has since rejoined the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department.13 The Laborers are reportedly considering a full-fledged reunification with the AFL-CIO in the near future. Even the Teamsters are said to be eyeing the exits. 15

As one labor columnist put it in April 2009: “Even with its limited mandate, Change to Win is crumbling.”16 Regardless of how long the remnants of this once mighty federation manage to hold on, one thing is clear. Change to Win no longer speaks with authority or credibility.

1 Change to Win press release, 7/25/05
2 Teamsters press release, 7/24/05
3 Letter from UFCW International President Joe Hansen to AFL-CIO, 7/29/05
4 “Stern’s Group Shows Slow Growth a Year After Split,” Kim Chapman, Bloomberg, 10/5/06
5U.S. Department of Labor Form LM-2 filings, 2006-2008
7 Ibid
9 Ibid
10“House of Wrangling: UNITE-HERE v SEIU, AFL v CtW, John Nichols, 3/13/09
11“UNITE-HERE Rejoins AFL-CIO” Ben Smith, Politico, 9/17/09
12 “For Unions, A Time of Opportunity and Worry,” Alec MacGillis, The Washington Post, 9/15/09
13“Politics has Dissidents Talking to A.F.L.-C.I.O.,” Steven Greenhouse, The New York Times, 7/19/08
14 “Which Union Do I Belong To Now,” Harold Meyerson, The American Prospect, 4/9/09
15 “For Unions, A Time of Opportunity and Worry,” Alec MacGillis, The Washington Post, 9/15/09
16 “Which Union Do I Belong To Now,” Harold Meyerson, The American Prospect, 4/9/09