In a series of dinners and meetings in Washington, the presidents of several breakaway unions and the presidents of several federation unions have been mapping strategies to help elect Senator Barack Obama and forge joint policies on trade and other issues.
Several union officials involved in the meetings said the leaders had also discussed overhauling the A.F.L.-C.I.O. to address the concerns of some breakaway unions, with the aim of persuading some to rejoin.
One issue being debated is whether Richard Trumka, the federation’s secretary-treasurer, should succeed John J. Sweeney as president. Because Mr. Trumka, considered the favorite, is unpopular with several breakaway union leaders, his election would make it less likely that those unions would return.
In 2005, several leading unions — including the service employees; the Teamsters; the food and commercial workers; and Unite Here, which represents hotel, restaurant and apparel workers — quit the A.F.L.-C.I.O., asserting that it was too bureaucratic, plodding and ineffective in reversing labor’s long decline. The seceding unions formed the Change to Win Coalition, which has created its own political field operation and organizing operation.
But now, eager for the Democrats to win the White House and increase their majorities in Congress, the union presidents are trying to maximize their political cooperation, especially in swing states where unions are strong: Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
“Most A.F.L.-C.I.O. unions, from my discussions, and probably all Change to Win Unions, want to think about how do we go about building a united labor movement,” said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America.
Mr. Cohen said there had been initial discussions about what might be done to bring back some of the breakaway unions, but he said the overwhelming focus for the next 15 weeks would be on the political campaign. After Election Day, he and several other union presidents said, talks might pick up on patching up differences between some Change to Win unions and the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
Change to Win has 7 unions with more than 5 million members, while the larger federation has 56 member unions representing 10 million workers.
In a sign that the two sides are coming closer together, one breakaway union, the Laborers’ International Union of North America, has opted to participate in the A.F.L.’s political program this year, rather than the Change to Win program. Moreover, the laborers’ union has rejoined the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s Building and Construction Trades Department.
Several union officials said there was talk of trying to have the laborers’ president, Terence O’ Sullivan, succeed Mr. Sweeney, even though the laborers quit the federation. Mr. O’Sullivan is well liked and a spirited orator, and he has won praise for having his union do more organizing and nursing Ullico, a union-owned insurer, back from financial troubles and scandal.
Even after the Change to Win unions walked out in July 2005, hundreds of union locals that were part of those unions continued to participate in, and cooperate with, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s city, county and state labor councils. The antagonism was greatest at the national level, and the recent moves toward cooperation among national union presidents points to some easing of tensions.
Mr. Cohen, of the communications workers, has been a central figure in bringing the two sides together. He has worked with other union presidents, including Leo Gerard of the steelworkers, James P. Hoffa of the Teamsters and Bruce Raynor of Unite Here, to formulate a joint position that calls for slowing the push to free trade and including more worker protections in trade accords.
He has also persuaded several Change to Win unions to work closely with the A.F.L.-C.I.O. with the goal of mobilizing one million union members to push for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to unionize workers. The two sides are also cooperating to push the next president to enact universal health coverage.
“We’re not only talking about working together; we are working together,” Mr. Raynor said.
Several officials involved in the talks said that of the breakaway unions, the laborers and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union seemed most interested in rejoining the federation, although they would first want to see some reforms to make the A.F.L.-C.I.O. less bureaucratic. But these officials said that Unite Here, the service employees and the Teamsters were seeking far more than a handful of changes at the labor federation before they would consider rejoining.
Several union officials have proposed creating a new labor federation that perhaps would have a new name and be more nimble than the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
“It’s going to take substantial change to bring some of these unions back,” said one union president, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks between the two sides.