May 31, 2005
A Summer of Discontent for Labor Focuses on Its Leader's Fitness for
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
WASHINGTON, May 27 - At 71, after nearly half a century in the union
movement and after a decade leading the nation's main labor federation,
John J. Sweeney is facing his toughest time ever.
The percentage of American workers belonging to unions continues to
fall, President Bush is seeking to weaken collective bargaining rights
for 700,000 federal workers, and many unionized companies are cutting
back once-unassailable benefits, like health insurance and pensions.
But for Mr. Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the biggest battle
may be a nasty internal struggle - the federation's largest union, the
Service Employees International Union, is threatening to secede if, as
many expect, Mr. Sweeney wins a new four-year term this summer. And
several other major unions have hinted that they, too, might leave the
A.F.L.-C.I.O., a federation of 57 unions and 13 million workers.
"We need to make far-reaching changes and have a leader committed to
such changes, and that leader is not John Sweeney," said Andrew L.
Stern, president of the service employees union, which has more than 1.7
Mr. Stern seeks to push Mr. Sweeney into retirement, but Mr. Sweeney is
digging in - and is voicing anger with Mr. Stern, a one-time protégé,
saying his divisiveness is weakening the movement.
But Mr. Stern's critique of Mr. Sweeney has strong support from four
other unions - the Teamsters, the laborers, the food and commercial
workers, and Unite Here, which represents hotel, restaurant and apparel
workers. The five dissident unions represent more than a third of the
membership of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of
With such unrest, many union leaders agree that the labor movement is at
a crossroads: one path might lead to disastrous division and hasten
labor's decline, while the other might lead to a revival.
Mr. Sweeney's simple response to his critics is: "I believe I'm the
right person to lead the changes we need."
What has split organized labor into pro- and anti-Sweeney camps is a
debate over the best direction for labor and who would be best to lead
the movement and reverse its decline. Mr. Sweeney's opponents say that
he is tired and not charismatic or forceful enough. They also say he has
not gotten labor to put nearly enough money and energy into rebuilding
its membership rolls through organizing campaigns; the percentage of
private-sector workers in unions has plunged to 7.9 percent from 35
percent in the 1950's.
Despite the criticism, Mr. Sweeney is favored to win re-election. No
challenger has emerged, and his backers say he has the support of more
than 70 percent of the delegates to the federation's convention in July.
Mr. Sweeney received a major lift on Thursday, when the United Auto
Workers - which has given some backing to Mr. Stern's criticisms -
endorsed the incumbent.
That endorsement, union leaders say, makes it less likely that John W.
Wilhelm, who heads the hotel and restaurant division of Unite Here, will
make good on a threat to run. Mr. Sweeney has faced opposition only
once, in 1995, when he was first elected to a two-year term; since then
he has won two four-year-terms.
"It looks like I have the votes," Mr. Sweeney said in an interview on
Friday. "Like any election, I run as if it's the toughest election of my
But Mr. Sweeney's opponents still hope to press him to step aside.
"John's style of leadership is consensus building, but the labor
movement in 2005 doesn't need consensus - it needs dramatic change to
grow," said Bruce Raynor, who is the overall president of Unite Here and
an ally of Mr. Stern's. "John can win vote-wise, but do you count that
as a win? If you win and drive the labor movement apart, that's not a win."
Usually soft-spoken, Mr. Sweeney can be gruff with critics, business
leaders and conservative politicians, giving speeches characterized by
fiery words but a flat, unexciting style. He has dedicated his life to
the labor movement, often telling audiences how he, as a boy in the
Bronx, attended union meetings with his father, a bus driver.
He rose to become president of New York's largest union of doormen and
janitors, then became president of the Service Employees International
Union - and he admits to feeling pained that the union he once headed is
threatening to secede.
Adding personal drama to the feud, Mr. Sweeney was long Mr. Stern's
mentor when Mr. Sweeney led the service employees union and Mr. Stern
was its organizing director. Mr. Sweeney hired Mr. Stern, attracted by
his vision, forcefulness and impatience - his blow-through-the-obstacles
streak. Now Mr. Stern is using those traits to undercut him.
"I've long been an admirer of Andy's," Mr. Sweeney said. "But I really
resent this attitude, that 'if I have differences and I don't get my own
way, I'm leaving the federation.' "
In June, Mr. Stern's executive board is expected to give him a green
light to quit the A.F.L.-C.I.O. if he chooses. Such a walkout,
especially if other unions join in, would badly hurt the federation,
costing it more than 10 percent of its dues money, creating a public
relations disaster and probably resulting in unions raiding each other's
Mr. Stern, whose union has added 600,000 workers in the past decade, has
repeatedly said that if the A.F.L.-C.I.O. does not embrace enough
change, he will seek to build something better, presumably an
organization outside the federation that would seek to attract workers
and sympathetic young people.
Frustrated that the number of workers in unions has fallen while overall
employment has grown, Mr. Stern faults Mr. Sweeney for not getting labor
leaders to spend far more on organizing and for doing too little to get
small unions to merge to form larger, stronger ones.
Mr. Sweeney thought he had met Mr. Stern more than halfway last month
when he announced a platform encouraging union mergers and pressing
unions to spend more on recruiting nonunion workers. Mr. Sweeney and his
backers seem puzzled and angry that Mr. Stern still appears intent on
Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County
and Municipal Employees, said Mr. Sweeney was the man to unite labor and
push it forward.
"He's an excellent leader, a man of vision," Mr. McEntee said. "Facing
Bush, the Supreme Court, the House and the Senate being in the hands of
what I would consider right-wing conservatives, we need a united labor
movement now more than ever. I'm truly concerned that some unions might
leave. We can't be as strong as a federation with them gone. Nor can
they be as strong if they leave."
Even many Sweeney critics praise him for transforming the federation's
political arm into a formidable lobbying and election machine; it is
often viewed as the Democrats' leading get-out-the-vote operation. Mr.
Sweeney's backers praise him for getting 20 unions to become more
aggressive in organizing workers, though Mr. Stern questions why it took
so long and insists there is still far too little organizing.
Indeed, Mr. Stern and his allies have hammered Mr. Sweeney for not
backing their proposal to spend $60 million - half the federation's
budget - on organizing and on giving rebates to individual unions to
organize. Mr. Sweeney, who proposed spending $22.5 million on such
efforts, said devoting half the federation's budget to unionizing would
prevent it from fulfilling its responsibilities in politics, collective
bargaining and other areas. He said the budgetary changes Mr. Stern
proposed would force him to lay off 100 staff members, after he already
laid off 100 of the federation's staff of 420.
Mr. Sweeney's backers say that the federation's spending $60 million
instead of $22.5 million on unionizing would not make a big difference
since individual unions spend more than $300 million a year on organizing.
Mr. Sweeney said that the decline in union membership was not his fault.
"We've gone through some horrible times, losing close to three million
manufacturing jobs just during the Bush years, and many of them were
good, middle-income, good-benefit union jobs," he said. "We haven't done
enough organizing to keep up with those job losses."
In explaining his decision to run again, Mr. Sweeney talked of growing
up in a home where three things were paramount: family, faith and his
father's union. He spoke as if he was on a mission and discussed past
divisions that were ultimately healed, as when the United Auto Workers
quit the federation in a dispute over the Vietnam War.
Mr. Sweeney said he still hoped to keep the service employees in the
fold. "It's a worry that any affiliate would think of seceding," he
said. "But I will do my damnedest to try to avoid that."
Some labor experts called it an inopportune time for infighting. "Given
that labor's on the defensive, a split right now would really hurt
them," said Richard Hurd, a labor relations professor at Cornell
University. "If labor comes out of this bitterly divided and the
aftermath is internecine warfare, where unions go after each other, then
it only plays into the hands of the enemies of labor."