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Labored Steps

Strife in the AFL-CIO.

Las Vegas, Nevada 

AFL-CIO PRESIDENT John Sweeney is known for his bromides, and, at the opening of the Federation’s semiannual executive council meeting, he didn’t disappoint. “I think the labor movement has done some pretty great things over the last years,” he declared on February 28. But, at this three-day meeting, his studied complacency was punctured by threats, accusations, denunciations, and hand-wringing from the more than 50 union presidents who had come to Las Vegas. Seated in the dreary conference halls of Bally’s Hotel—suitably distanced from the smoke, glitter, and incessant bleeping of slot machines in the lobby—the union leaders engaged in what Sweeney reluctantly acknowledged was a “fierce” debate about the Federation’s future.

It’s an important debate. Since its founding in 1955, the AFL-CIO has provided the largest counterweight to business interests, both in the workplace and in Washington. But, as the labor movement’s share of the workforce has declined, the Federation has lost power. The union presidents desperately want to halt that decline, but disagreement about how to do so has been acute, reaching new heights at the Las Vegas meeting, where the issue of structural reforms dominated the agenda. That’s too bad, because the solution to the Federation’s problem lies elsewhere: in finding an effective replacement for John Sweeney.

UNDER SWEENEY'S LEADERSHIP, from 1996 through 2004, the labor movement has lost 797,000 members, and the percentage of unionized workers has dropped 2 percentage points. Worse, the Carpenters’ Union, one of the largest and most successful construction unions, quit the AFL-CIO, charging that Sweeney was squandering its resources. The Service Employees International Union (seiu), the Federation’s largest union, is threatening to leave, and unite here, the union of needle trades and hotel workers, might follow the seiu out the door. A host of other large unions, including the Teamsters, the Laborers, and the United Food and Commercial Workers, have questioned his leadership as well.

Sweeney aides blame these defections on the frustrated ambitions of union presidents and maintain that the labor movement would have shrunk regardless of what the Federation did. They further argue that, if Sweeney had not replaced former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland in 1995, it would have declined even faster. Said one top Sweeney aide, “In 1995, the movement was moribund. That’s not true today. There has been progress. At the end of Kirkland’s term, it was zero.” But, in Kirkland’s last full eight years as president, from 1986 to 1994, operating under similar political and economic handicaps, the labor movement lost only 235,000 members. Kirkland also brought the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers back into the AFL-CIO.

Some Sweeney backers acknowledge his difficulties in organizing workers but praise him for reviving the Federation’s political operations. His staff claims that the Federation has boosted turnout of union households from 19 percent in 1992 and 14 percent in 1994 to 26 percent in 2000. “We are responsible for a quarter of the electorate,” political director Karen Ackerman said when asked if she were concerned about expanding the Federation’s political work beyond union households.

But the claim of increased turnout rests on questionable figures from Voter News Service (VNS) polls. As Ruy Teixeira of the Century Foundation has written, VNS showed a dramatic rise in the labor vote after 1994 because it replaced a survey method that underestimated turnout with one that probably overestimated it. Relying on other extensive post-election polls, including the Current Population Survey, Harvard economist Richard Freeman estimates that the percentage of union voters in the electorate actually fell 1 percent between 1990 and 2000 and that the percentage of voters in union households fell 2 percent in the same period.

SWEENEY'S PERFORMANCE HAS privately aroused the ire of many union presidents, but, over the last year, his opposition has become chiefly identified with Andrew Stern, the lean, gray-haired president of the seiu. Where the AFL-CIO president is genial and diffident, Stern, who was originally Sweeney’s protg, is pugnacious and confrontational—and he says the labor movement needs new leadership. “We must change the [AFL-CIO] bureaucracy, and not simply keep doing the same old political program,” Stern wrote on an seiu website during the meeting. And Stern has been rumored to be urging John Wilhelm, a president of unite here, to challenge Sweeney. But Stern and his allies have not launched an open challenge to Sweeney’s reelection, which will be decided this July. Instead, Stern has launched a complicated set of structural proposals that will not necessarily solve any of the Federation’s problems. And he has done so in a manner that has focused the debate on his own contentiousness rather than on Sweeney’s deficiencies.

Last fall, Stern put out a ten-point program called Unite to Win and threatened to bolt the AFL-CIO if it were not adopted. Sweeney had previously championed some of these proposals, but lacked the clout to get them accepted. But two of Stern’s ideas went beyond anything Sweeney had proposed. One called on the AFL-CIO to force smaller unions to merge into larger unions that would be limited to specific sectors of manufacturing and service work, and to discourage larger unions from organizing outside of an assigned sector. Smaller unions, including highly successful ones like the Firefighters, resented this idea. Industrial unions that have expanded beyond manufacturing, such as the Steelworkers, saw Stern’s proposal as an attempt to monopolize service workers.

Stern and the SEIU also proposed that unions spending significant amounts on organizing should get back half of the dues they now pay to the AFL-CIO. Because it would cut the Federation’s budget, that proposal was seen as a threat to the AFL-CIO’s political and legislative program and was resisted by unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (afscme); the American Federation of Teachers (AFT); and the Communications Workers of America, all of which depend upon electing sympathetic legislators for their success.

Altogether, Stern’s actions may have actually strengthened Sweeney. Many union officials interpreted Stern’s threat to bolt as a gesture of contempt toward them and the AFL-CIO. One union official described Stern as a “millstone” around the neck of the unions that want Sweeney replaced. Unions that had previously railed against Sweeney and his staff, another official explained, “are supporting Sweeney because they hate Stern more.” 

IN LAS VEGAS, Stern dropped his widely unpopular demand for forced mergers; instead, he supported a Teamster proposal to rebate some dues for organizing, while indirectly encouraging mergers. But that proposal was defeated 15 to seven by the Federation’s Executive Committee. It’s just as well: Neither rebates nor mergers would solve the Federation’s problems. The record among U.S. unions—including the seiu and the afscme, the AFT and the National Education Association, and the pre-merger AFL and CIO themselves—is that competition over recruits has actually encouraged organizing. And there is little reason to believe that rebating part of a union’s dues would dramatically spur organizing- -but it would definitely put the AFL-CIO’s legislative and political program in jeopardy.

Stern and his allies promised to carry these proposals to the convention in July. “We’ll keep fighting until we win,” he asserted at a press briefing after the vote. Meanwhile, at a later press conference, Sweeney declared the three- day meeting a success—“We’ve taken some big first steps here,” he said. But, if the current bitter infighting persists and leads to more defections from the Federation, neither faction will win. Instead of insisting that “great things” have happened, Sweeney needs to recognize that he has lost his authority as president and step down. Indeed, that is what Kirkland did in 1995 when he found himself facing a similar revolt. And, instead of trying to stir up a debate over mergers and rebates, Stern needs to acknowledge that what the Federation needs first and foremost is not a new structure, but a new leader. As one internal memo from a Federation leader put it, “Even if a structure could be created that answered many of the current problems facing the movement, if it were led by an incompetent leader, little would be accomplished.” 

A new president could give the AFL-CIO the public presence it lacks under the reserved Sweeney (who even reads dutifully from a text in executive council meetings) and could take advantage of the growing consensus within the Federation that more effort has to be put into organizing. Sweeney can’t do that—not because he has the wrong ideas, but because too many union leaders are no longer listening to him. The AFL-CIO would probably be best off bending its constitution to reach outside its ranks to a former pro-labor politician like Representative Richard Gephardt, but that’s unlikely to happen when the AFL-CIO convenes in Chicago. What’s more likely is that the fierce debate over personalities and side issues will continue, and the Federation will continue to founder.

This article appeared in the March 21, 2005 issue of the magazine.