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WASHINGTON - The AFL-CIO fracture is posing potential problems for Democratic leaders, who rely heavily on unions for money and volunteers. And it could play into the hands of Republicans seeking to extend their clout among one of the most traditionally Democratic constituencies.
Two unions representing 3.2 million workers — the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union — bolted from the AFL-CIO on Monday. Further defections were possible.
The exodus came in a dispute over what dissidents see as AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's inability to halt declining membership and over the future direction of the labor movement. Critics say the union should shift its emphasis from electoral politics to finding new members.
Because the AFL-CIO has played such a major role in supporting Democrats over the years, the rift is producing unease among top Democrats who have seen the control of both Congress and the White House slip from them in recent years.
"I don't know what's going to happen but it's not going to help," said Rep. Charles Rangel (news, bio, voting record), D-N.Y. "I really hoped it wouldn't come to this. It's not the money, it's the lack of unity on the issues and not having a solid front."
Labor experts suggested the dispute could continue to erode the Democratic hold on labor and offer an opening to Republicans. "This put labor up for grabs in American politics again," said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland.
In particular, Morici said he expected Republicans to reach out directly to union members and try to cut deals with dissident coalition leader SEIU President Andrew Stern. "Stern is more of a pragmatist" than old-school labor leaders like Sweeney, Morici said.
Both Stern and Teamsters President James P. Hoffa disputed that there would be any net falloff in support for Democratic candidates. "We will have as much or more money to organize and to be politically active," Hoffa told reporters in Chicago, the site of this week's troubled AFL-CIO convention.
But there will be "a period of adjustment" that will begin to impact candidates running in 2006, said Democratic strategist Jenny Backus. "Instead of one-stop shopping, it will be two-stop shopping" for those seeking union support, she said.
However, most Democratic candidates "already have strong relationships" with both the AFL-CIO and the two unions that bolted. "It is disappointing. I think we work better when we're united," Backus said.