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Third large union leaves AFL-CIO

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(CNN) -- Another large union decided to leave the AFL-CIO Friday, widening a rift that has cost the labor federation more than a third of its members in the past week.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, with 1.4 million members, sent a letter to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney announcing that it is disaffiliating from the AFL-CIO. The move was not unexpected, given the UFCW's decision to boycott the federation's quadrennial convention.

"For our union to succeed on behalf of our members, we must be part of a revitalized and dynamic labor movement that connects with a new generation of workers struggling in the 21st century's global economy," UFCW President Joe Hansen wrote.

He said the union decided to leave the AFL-CIO "in order to pursue the most effective course of action for its members and all workers in its core industries."

On Monday, the opening day of the AFL-CIO's convention, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, with 1.4 million members, and the Service Employees International Union, with 1.8 million, announced they were leaving the federation.

With the added departure of UFCW, the AFL-CIO has lost 4.6 million members -- more than 35 percent of its total membership of 13 million.

And it's not over.

UNITE HERE, which represents 450,000 textile, hotel and restaurant workers, is also reconsidering its membership in the AFL-CIO, although it has not announced any plans to disaffiliate.

The departing unions have complained that under Sweeney's leadership, the AFL-CIO wasn't pumping enough money into union organizing -- and wasn't willing to make changes demanded by the Change to Win Coalition, an alliance of seven unions formed in June.

The coalition includes the Teamsters, SEIU, UFCW and UNITE HERE, along with two other AFL-CIO members -- the Laborers' International Union and the United Farm Workers. The Carpenters union is also part of the alliance but is not in the AFL-CIO.

The dissident unions argued that the federation had shortchanged organizing new members by pouring inordinate effort and money into political activities, primarily in support of Democratic candidates -- with little result.

"We must ensure that we are the voice of workers to politicians and elected officials -- and not the voice of politicians or any political party to workers," Hansen wrote in his letter to Sweeney. "Politicians will find that as we grow our labor movement, we will also grow our political power."

Political ramifications

Earlier in the week, Sweeney called the decision by the Teamsters and SEIU to bolt from the labor organization a "grievous insult" that would harm the cause of America's workers.

"It's a tragedy for working people, because at a time when our corporate and conservative adversaries have created the most powerful anti-worker political machine in the history of our country, a divided movement hurts the hopes of working families for a better life," he said.

The labor chief vowed to make a "huge shift" in resources toward strategic organizing campaigns, while increasing the federation's political activity by building "a year-round, year-in, year-out grass-roots membership mobilization for legislation and politics."

The split within organized labor has ramifications for the Democratic Party, whose candidates received tens of millions of dollars from AFL-CIO affiliates in 2004. Democrats also rely on unions as an important source of volunteers for grass-roots campaigning and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Although the dissident unions have vowed to be more bipartisan than the AFL-CIO, Teamsters President James Hoffa said they "are not moving toward the Republican Party."

"What we are doing is, we're going to be willing to back bipartisan candidates if they are good for working America," he told CNN Monday. "We are not going to be tied to one party."

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