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Wednesday, September 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Labor coalition seeks to organize Wal-Mart workers, those left jobless by Katrina

The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — Leaders from unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO pledged yesterday to organize Wal-Mart workers and reach out to those who lost their jobs due to Hurricane Katrina.

The Change to Win Coalition met for its founding convention in St. Louis. In between official business — adopting a new constitution and electing leaders of the new labor federation — the event resembled a rally for the 460 delegates who cheered speeches by labor leaders or comments from workers who recounted their own battles.

Teamsters President James Hoffa and Unite Here President Bruce Raynor called on the coalition to organize workers at Wal-Mart. The world's largest retailer "contributes nothing to America but more poverty and they've got to be stopped," Raynor said.

Labor leaders said they weren't just repeating the same old message about Wal-Mart but making plans to help those workers gain the right to organize.

"You bet your life there's a renewed commitment," Raynor told a news conference.

Wal-Mart officials said the average employee earns twice the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, and 75 percent of its store management team began as hourly workers.

"Wal-Mart is committed to making a positive contribution to working families and we do it every day," spokeswoman Christi Gallagher said. "We're disappointed that some continue to ignore the facts and fail to provide any real vision for the future."

Hoffa also said the new coalition will do what it can to help hundreds of thousands of workers who lost their jobs because of Katrina.

"We have a strategy to train workers to rebuild their communities," Hoffa said. "We must learn from this tragedy and help these workers start over. We must help our fellow Americans build new communities and new lives."

He said unions will train workers in hard-hit areas, from Teamsters training drivers to carpenters helping construction workers learn new skills.

Organizers hope the new coalition will revitalize the labor movement.

The delegates adopted a new constitution by a voice vote. The 10-member leadership council then elected the federation's leaders, official recognition for Chairwoman Anna Burger and Secretary-Treasurer Edgar Romney.

Burger said that when she was growing up, unions represented one of every three workers. Now, they represent one in 10.

"Union power puts bread on our tables, roofs over our heads. It sends our children to college, and union power helps us retire with security," Burger said.

The seven unions — including the Teamsters, Service Employees International Union, and the United Food and Commercial Workers — represent about 5.4 million workers.

The unions recently left the AFL-CIO, which has about 8.8 million members, charging that the nation's largest labor federation was unable to halt declining membership. They argued that the AFL-CIO should shift emphasis from backing political candidates to organizing new members.

The new coalition is positioning itself, in Hoffa's words, as "a lean, mean organizing machine."

The organization is calling for its leadership strength to come from its affiliates, though the federation will have an executive office, a strategic organizing center and a central organizing fund.

Its budget will come from charging its international unions 25 cents per capita for each union member. It plans to spend 75 percent on organizing and 25 percent on executive functions.

A worker attending the gathering, Georgia Lambert, 58, of Kansas City, Mo., said she liked what she was hearing about a commitment to diversity and greater organizing.

"It's a little bit different today. Everyone seems to be going forward, ready to burst, ready to go," she said.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in a statement that everyone in the union movement supported the same goals.

He said the money Change to Win saved from leaving the AFL-CIO would be small compared with the cost of organizing and hadn't warranted the split.

"Their way leaves all working people weakened and vulnerable, not stronger," he said.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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