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Labour movement

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, labor union density (percentage of unionized American workers) was reaching a historic low point. From a high of over 30 percent in the 1950s, the proportion of American workers who were union members had plunged to 12 percent in the year 2000, and only 8 percent of private sector employees.

A reformist coalition led by John Sweeney, then president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), had taken over the helm of the AFL–CIO in 1995, but while the new regime was able to make some significant structural changes, they were not able to curtail the rapid decline of unions in the United States. In 2003, five unions joined together informally as the New Unity Partnership (NUP) to push for reform in the AFL-CIO and renewed effort to organize unorganized workers: The Service Employees International Union(SEIU), the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union(HERE) (later to merge to form UNITE HERE), the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) and the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). The NUP had no formal structure but pushed for coordinated, industry-based organizing campaigns and additional emphasis on organizing.

Of the NUP members, the SEIU, with its president Andy Stern, was the most vocal proponent of change in the labor movement. (The current president is Mary Kay Henry.) At the union’s 2004 convention, Stern declared that workers should reform the AFL-CIO or “build something stronger.” Over the next year, a discussion of the labor movement’s future ensued with a degree of openness that was unusual for the often cloistered labor movement.