State labor leaders reacted cautiously yesterday to news that two of the AFL-CIO's largest member unions had defected and two more planned...

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State labor leaders reacted cautiously yesterday to news that two of the AFL-CIO’s largest member unions had defected and two more planned to follow, causing the powerful federation to lose about a third of its membership.

The shake-up will surely be felt in Washington, the sixth most-unionized state in the country.

“It’ll affect us,” said Leonard Smith, organizing director for Teamsters Local 117 in Seattle. “We’re just all waiting to see how it’s going to affect us.”

The Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced outside the AFL-CIO’s convention in Chicago yesterday that they had split from the labor federation in a disagreement over strategy.

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The United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, representing textile and hotel workers, also voiced plans to bolt.

Combined, those unions account for about a third of the membership of the Washington State Labor Council, the AFL-CIO’s local lobbying and advocacy group representing about 430,000 workers.

“We’re going to look at where we go from here,” said council spokeswoman Karen Keiser. “We can’t make any true decisions until the national convention is done.”

Keiser said she didn’t know how much of the council’s $5 million budget came from AFL-CIO contributions.

At the King County Labor Council, which represents about 150,000 workers, Executive Secretary Steve Williamson said the feuding on the national level hasn’t trickled down to the Seattle affiliate.

“People are related by struggle,” he said. “That kind of solitary is hard to break.”

The state’s labor movement has recently chalked up some major victories, including election of pro-labor Democrat Christine Gregoire as governor and legislative approval of first-ever collective-bargaining agreements for state workers.

Nearly 20 percent of workers in Washington belong to labor unions.

The state gained about 8,000 new union members last year, and the tally is expected to grow this year because of the new collective-bargaining rights for state government employees.

Sticking with the AFL-CIO are the influential Washington Federation of State Employees, with about 34,000 members; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, with about 15,000 state members; and the International Association of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents some Boeing workers and has 12,000 members in the state.

David Rolf, president of SEIU’s Local 775, said the national labor movement needed a shake-up because it has relied on old tactics from an old economy that are no longer relevant.

“If you’re told that a company had the same product line and corporate structure in 2005 as it had in 1955, you could probably conclude that the company is failing,” Rolf said.

The AFL-CIO had come under frequent criticism that it was spending too much on politicking and not enough on organizing.

Rolf, who led a successful campaign to organize the state’s home-care workers, thinks the defections from the AFL-CIO and the formation of a rival, seven-union organization called Change to Win Coalition signal a shift in union priorities — from building union power to empowering union members.

“We can see this as the moment when the ship turned around,” he said.

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or This report includes material from The Associated Press.