Building Trades' Sullivan Warns Sweeney
Against 'One Size Fits All' Restructuring Plan
By Brian Lockett, Bureau of National Affairs
BUILDING AND CONSTRUCTION Trades Department President Edward C. Sullivan
praised federation president John J. Sweeney for encouraging self
examination by unions regarding the future of organized labor but drew the
line over interference in building trade union matters by labor leaders
outside the industry.
"It is reckless and irresponsible for persons outside the construction
industry to superimpose a 'one size fits all' vision of the labor
movement," Sullivan said in a Dec. 6 letter to Sweeney.
While Sullivan did not refer to him by name, much of the recent impetus for
AFL-CIO reform comes from Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees
International Union. Stern is pushing for sweeping changes, including
consolidation of unions within industrial sectors to no more than three.
Stern has not made specific industry recommendations, but some federation
reformers suggest the following three union groupings in construction: a
heavy and highway trades union, an electrical trades union, and a
mechanical trades union.
"If change is needed in our sector of the movement, then the unions of the
building trades are best qualified and prepared to devise, deliberate and
undertake those changes," Sullivan said in the letter.
"We neither need nor want advice from self-appointed labor 'gurus' who
couldn't tell a spud wrench from a paintbrush."
Sullivan noted the "complex" and "interdependent" nature of construction
that the federation recognized when it chartered the building trades
department in 1908.
"The building trades remain deeply committed to the house of labor, but we
are not willing to undermine the best interests of our industry because a
small group of labor leaders want to inflict counterproductive and
potentially detrimental restructuring models on an industry about which
they have little understanding," Sullivan said.
"This is kind of response we were looking for," an AFL-CIO spokeswoman said
Dec. 14. "We look forward to a thoughtful discussion of all affiliate
proposals," she said.
Several building trade union presidents have criticized Stern, including
Frank Hanley, president of the 391,000-member International Union of
Operating Engineers. Hanley last month said some of Stern's ideas were
valid but should be considered "within the labor movement, not in the
newspapers" (50 CLR 1189, 11/17/04).
Joseph Hunt, president of the 127,000-member Bridge, Structural and
Ornamental Iron Workers, Dec. 13 expressed support for Sweeney's internal
evaluation. "We have been losing members and clout for some time now. It's
obvious that what we've been doing hasn't been working. I believe Mr.
Sweeney has provided us with a forum for a healthy self examination that is
long overdue," Hunt said.
James Williams, president of the 130,000-member Painters and Allied Trades,
Dec. 13 said that because "there are many factors to consider when we talk
about restructuring," his union will be deliberate before making a
response. Restructuring affects not only union members, Williams said, but
union contractors as well. "We must be clear on the whole picture before we
proceed with any one initiative," he said.
Cement Masons Stress Autonomy
Stern's proposal drew a sharp rebuke from the Operative Plasterers and
Cement Masons. "We won't let any imperialistic, dictatorial individuals or
their unions mess with our autonomy," Michael J. Gannon, a vice president
for the 40,000-member union, said in a Dec. 9 letter to Sweeney.
Speaking to Stern and SEIU through his letter to Sweeney, Gannon said, "I
believe your intentions may be good, but your actions, if successful, may
do more to fragment the labor movement than unite it. We don't need any
more defection and even the threat to leave the house of labor is
destructive. But if you have to go, go. The AFL-CIO will carry on with the
majority of us small unions who still believe in freedom of association and
Most of the other building trade unions either declined to comment or did
not respond to telephone inquiries on consolidation proposals and the
federation's internal evaluation. At least one major building trade union
is working on its own restructuring proposal.