By STEVEN GREENHOUSE and NOAM SCHEIBER MAY 5, 2016
The leaders of two of the nation’s biggest, most powerful labor unions — the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — are completing a plan that calls for unusually close cooperation in political campaigning, organizing and bargaining in states and cities across the United States.
The effort begins a process that could lead to a merger of the two organizations, an outcome that would create the nation’s largest labor union, with some 3.6 million members.
“While we recognize the differences in culture and structure between our respective organizations and the divisions that have hampered us in the past, the times demand that we build on our common purpose,” states a resolution the unions are expected to approve. It cites challenges like political attacks on organized labor, growing income inequality and deteriorating workplace conditions.
The document adds that the two unions will consider ways to step up the collaboration, including a formal merger.
The resolution — which was adopted by the Service Employees International Union board on Thursday and was expected to be considered by the American Federation board in June — also would need to be ratified at conventions the unions have scheduled for this year.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has 1.6 million members, most of whom are government workers. The Service Employees International Union has approximately two million members and is split nearly evenly between workers in the private and public sectors. About 80 percent of the unions’ membership is in roughly a dozen states, including New York, California and Illinois.
The purpose of the new arrangement, said Mary Kay Henry, the Service Employees International Union president, was to “unite the power of our organizations at every level to deal with the unprecedented attack on working people and growing inequality in this country.”
The unions plan “unity partnerships” to expand on such initiatives as a joint organizing drive of home-care workers, like a recent one in Pennsylvania, and joint lobbying efforts to persuade state lawmakers to increase funding for public schools and hospitals.
The benefits of the arrangement, officials said, would be that the unions could settle on common messages and strategies rather than tugging in different directions, and they could eliminate duplication of fixed costs — for phone banks, direct mail and advertisements. Union officials also said they hoped the joint efforts would prevent politicians from playing one union against the other when raising money for their campaigns, a practice the unions said they found exasperating but were often powerless to stop.
The two unions, along with two other large public sector unions — the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association — had already stepped up cooperation in recent years. They engaged in joint field mobilization efforts during the 2014 midterm elections and worked closely on the strategy surrounding a legal challenge by conservatives seeking to prohibit any union agreements from requiring government employees to pay fees to the unions that represented them. (The Supreme Court, which split 4-4 on the case after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February, left intact the agreements’ ability to impose the labor-friendly requirement.)
An inter-union committee spent just over a year deliberating on the new partnerships. The committee acknowledged the possibility of a future merger, but its mandate was not to consider institutional changes of that kind.
“The point of this resolution is not to get to a merger,” said Lee Saunders, the American Federation president. “That’s not what we’re trying to do, but it is an option that exists and can’t be ignored.”
Members of the unions often emphasize the cultural differences between the organizations and say the leaders of union locals in numerous states might be reluctant to merge. While both unions are known for their expertise and spending in political campaigns, the Service Employees organization is widely seen as more innovative and willing to take risks in organizing workers.
The Service Employees International Union has spent tens of millions of dollars backing the Fight for 15 movement, which drew attention to the plight of fast-food workers. The effort brought no immediate benefit in the form of new members — something most traditional unions insist on as a condition of spending large sums on organizing. But it spurred several cities and states to agree to phase in a $15 minimum wage over the next few years, which will benefit many of its members and millions of other workers.
Some union officials questioned the wisdom of a potential merger, which they said could turn the focus toward weaving together two huge, complicated organizations and away from external threats, like anti-labor legislation. But many concerns about cultural compatibility might be exaggerated, according to labor experts.
“I think Lee Saunders and Steve Fantauzzo have begun to really change the focus of that union,” said Steve Rosenthal, a former political director of theA.F.L.-C.I.O. who now works with both unions as a consultant, referring to the American Federation’s president and chief of staff. “They’re much more grass-roots oriented, much more member-driven, and I think that’s really compatible in a very big way with what you see at S.E.I.U.” (Mr. Rosenthal’s wife is an official for the Service Employees International Union.)
A decade ago, the tension between the unions was sharp as they fought in various states over organizing child-care workers and home-care aides. At one meeting of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s executive council in Las Vegas in 2005, the Service Employees president at the time, Andrew Stern, got into a shouting match with Gerald McEntee, the American Federation president, over which union should seek to organize 45,000 child-care workers in the Midwest.
The rancor grew worse later that year when Mr. Stern led his union and several others to quit the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the nation’s main labor federation.
More recently, the two unions have joined together: on a 2014 mobilization campaign in Pinellas County, Fla., which produced turnout levels more akin to a presidential year than a midterm election, and on electing three union-backed justices to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 2015.
Benjamin Gerritz, a board member of a large Service Employees local in Oregon who is a caseworker at an AIDS-focused nonprofit, said that the unions’ recent collaboration in his state on collective bargaining and on policy issues like paid sick leave and an increase in the minimum wage worked “seamlessly” and that he would support a merger.
If the unions did merge, one big question would be the relationship of the new union and the A.F.L-C.I.O. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees remains a member of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
Ms. Henry said it was too soon to speculate about such questions. She said that she and Mr. Saunders were focused on increasing the effectiveness of their political, organizing and bargaining efforts and that “the structural question about the A.F.L.-C.I.O. is going to follow.”