The small farm workers' union founded by labor hero Cesar Chavez joined a coalition of labor groups demanding changes in the AFL-CIO as...

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WASHINGTON — The small farm workers’ union founded by labor hero Cesar Chavez joined a coalition of labor groups demanding changes in the AFL-CIO as the 50-year-old federation inched closer to breaking up yesterday.

The United Farm Workers (UFW) union, organized in 1962 and now consisting of 27,000 members, brings to seven the number of unions in the Change to Win Coalition. Four of the coalition unions have threatened to bolt the AFL-CIO — the Teamsters and service employees, along with food and commercial workers and hotel, restaurant, retail, textile and laundry employees.

The UFW intends to stay in the AFL-CIO. Nonetheless, its partnership with the dissident unions gave the new coalition momentum headed into a fateful weekend.

The announcement came as federation officials gathered in Chicago for a contentious weekend of negotiations before the AFL-CIO’s annual convention. The dissident unions are threatening to bolt the convention and, eventually, the AFL-CIO itself unless their demands are met. In addition to seeking the ouster of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, the dissident unions want more money spent on recruiting union members and are seeking to merge several of the smaller unions.

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Sweeney and his supporters are urging the dissidents to remain in the AFL-CIO, arguing that a divided union movement will embolden political opponents and employers who might want to take advantage of weakened unions.

Union officials on both sides said there were few signs of progress yesterday. Some labor leaders sounded resigned to an eventual breakup, which could cost the AFL-CIO up to a third of its membership.

“I’m going to continue hoping that we will find a way to bridge the gaps and stay together, but I’d have to be naive to say that we’ve moved any closer down that road and there was less likelihood that they may leave the federation,” said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, who had been trying to broker an agreement.

At its executive council meeting in Chicago, the AFL-CIO’s executive council took two actions designed to show its opponents that it was willing to reform the federation.

The first would strengthen the executive committee, transferring powers from the federation’s headquarters to individual unions, including the coalition unions. The second provision would do away with a first-come, first-serve approach to organizing and instead find the union that is the best fit for the workers.

The executive council also passed a rule against raiding unions that may force the Service Employees International Union to decide sooner than it had planned on whether to bolt the AFL-CIO.

Members of the Change to Win Coalition represent more than 5 million of the federation’s nearly 13 million members.

The coalition heralded the UFW’s decision to join.

“It’s a historic day,” spokesman Eric Hauser said. “The farm workers represent the best of the American labor movement. Their commitment to organizing is an inspiration and will help fuel the coalition’s focus on bringing more workers to unions.”

The UFW is based outside Bakersfield, Calif., and has members in Arizona, California, Florida, Texas and Washington state.

UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, who made reference to Chavez’s cry of “Si se puede,” Spanish for “Yes, we can,” said at a news conference that joining the coalition was “not intended as a negative statement about the AFL-CIO or President Sweeney.”

“It is a positive statement,” Rodriguez said. “We believe that with new strategies and with new unity we can win.”

There was no immediate reaction from the AFL-CIO. The coalition’s official goal is to spearhead new efforts to recruit union members. Unofficially, it is the home of the effort to reform — or divide — the AFL-CIO.

Only 12 percent of the nation’s work force is unionized, down from the 1950s when about one of every three workers belonged to a union.