AFL-CIO Chief Facing Challenges From Labor's Left
Critics Say That Under Sweeney, Group's Political Influence,
Percentage of Workforce Have Waned
By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2005
WHEN JOHN J. SWEENEY WON his insurgent campaign for president of the
AFL-CIO in 1995, he set forth two fundamental goals: to restore labor's
political muscle and to reverse the steady decline in union membership.
"Organized labor [has] declined from a political powerhouse to a
political patsy," Sweeney, a former Bronx elevator operator, declared as
he accepted the presidency. "The most important thing we can do,
starting right now, today, is to organize every working woman and man."
Since then, the AFL-CIO's hold on the labor force has declined as has
its influence in Washington. Despite labor's $147 million, all-out
effort last year on behalf of the Democrats, President Bush was
reelected with 10 million more votes than in 2000 and GOP majorities
increased in the House and Senate.
None of the union presidents said they blame Sweeney for the defeats.
Under Sweeney's aggressive political program, union members have sharply
increased their share of the total vote, and their Democratic margins
remain high. Still, Democratic losses at the polls have Sweeney and his
political lieutenants on the defensive.
Now the establishment candidate, Sweeney is facing his first serious
challenge as he seeks a fourth term -- and it is from his own base, the
labor left. The AFL's 60 member unions will meet in July to choose the
next president, but the struggle for votes has already begun.
Although he has not announced his candidacy, John Wilhelm, president of
the hospitality division of Unite Here (the recently merged needle
trades and hotel workers unions), is widely viewed among union leaders
as a likely challenger. Wilhelm declined to comment.
The stakes in the fight for the presidency of the labor federation are
much higher than control over the AFL-CIO bureaucracy on 16th Street NW,
just north of the White House.
Organized labor is in the midst of a debate over the structure of
existing unions, strategies to deal with global employers and the
threats posed by such large corporations as Wal-Mart. The combination of
a contest for power and growing pressure for major restructuring has
split labor into two camps.
Among the unions that appear likely to support Sweeney are the
Steelworkers, the American Federation of Teachers, the American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the
Communications Workers of America.
But even some Sweeney loyalists have gone public with their criticism.
Harold A. Schaitberger, general president of the International
Association of Fire Fighters, recently wrote in a memo to the AFL that
"for the last three election cycles at the national/federal level, the
only measure that is truly relevant is that labor has come up short."
Schaitberger said the AFL "must also end its practice of relegating
itself to being subservient to one political party or our political and
legislative influence will continue to decline."
In an interview, Sweeney said that he has enough votes to win: "I am
confident I have very significant support from the affiliates."
Among those unions likely to back Wilhelm or another insurgent are Unite
Here, the Service Employees International Union, the Laborers'
International Union, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial
Critics contend that because organized labor's survival is in such
danger, Sweeney's cautious, consensus-building strategies have become a
liability when tough leadership is needed.
Some point to disturbing trends in union membership: The percentage of
workers represented by unions has dropped from 15.5 percent in 1994 to
12.9 percent in 2003. In 1955, when the AFL and CIO merged, 33.2 percent
of U.S. workers were in unions.
In a more threatening development, the percentage of the private-sector
workforce represented by unions dropped to 8.2 percent last year.
"The labor movement has failed to stem the tide," said Bruce S. Raynor,
general president of Unite Here. "The AFL-CIO has been this volunteer,
lowest-common-denominator organization. . . . That time has passed. We
need a stronger labor federation."
Raynor, SEIU President Andrew L. Stern and other labor leaders believe
the AFL-CIO must force, or strongly encourage, union mergers. The goal
of such mergers would be to create larger unions responsible for entire
sectors of the economy, equipped to bargain with sector-wide employers.
Sweeney, 70, is the son of a New York bus driver. His politics are
rooted in liberal Catholicism's commitment to social justice. Sweeney
rose to the presidency of SEIU in 1980, and he doubled its size when
other unions' memberships were declining.
Sweeney defended his approach of trying to build consensus as opposed to
get-tough strategies. "Mergers can't be forced; you can't bypass
democracy," he said. "I'd like to see someone try it with the present 60
presidents. . . . You can't just go out and beat people over the head --
you have to have discussion to see where there is common ground."
Stern, who succeeded Sweeney as head of SEIU, has become his strongest
"We are either going to build a labor movement where workers who work
for the same employer, who work in the same industry, join together in a
union that matches up with their employers, and where every union has
responsibility for some part of the economy," Stern said, "or we let
everyone organize whomever they want, and continue to divide the
strength of workers."
Stern has threatened to withdraw his union from the AFL if the
federation does not adopt major structural changes.
Next month, top union leaders, under Sweeney's direction, will begin
examining proposals, including those suggested by Stern. The outcome of
that process is generally viewed as crucial to the AFL-CIO presidency
fight, union officials said, with Sweeney's prospects sharply boosted if
the federation's executive council proposes major changes in union