Labor Leaders Seek Strategy to Stem Losses; 'Hard Choices' on Table

Article excerpt

Byline: William Glanz, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Labor's love lost.

But the mood within the labor movement is not as lighthearted as Shakespeare's comedy after Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, lost his bid for the presidency.

As the nation's labor leaders gather tomorrow in Las Vegas for their annual winter meeting, they face a decline in membership, dissent within the labor movement and shrinking political clout.

Simmering below the surface is the future of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. With union leaders talking about reforms, there are rumblings that Mr. Sweeney, 70, a mild-mannered consensus builder who will run for a third term in July, should be replaced by a more progressive leader.

"Some hard choices have to be made. The discussion is going to be urgent and intense," said Paul Clark, professor of labor relations at Pennsylvania State University.

Labor's diminishing returns have been a long time in the making.

Since the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged in 1955, the percentage of the U.S. work force represented by unions has fallen from about 35 percent to 12.5 percent, or 13 million workers. Only about 8 percent of private-sector workers belong to unions.

To rejuvenate the stalled labor movement, the AFL-CIO's 54-member executive council will examine numerous proposals, from forcing mergers to create bigger unions with more leverage to reducing the amount of money unions give to the federation.

"There is a lot that's working," Mr. Sweeney said. "But it hasn't been enough. We realize that."

Among the most radical proposals is one to cut the amount of money that unions pay to the AFL-CIO. That would leave the 58 unions in the labor federation with more money to devote to organizing efforts.

The plan, proposed by the Teamsters, calls for cutting in half union contributions to the AFL-CIO, provided unions spend at least 10 percent of their budgets on organizing. Reducing the annual per-capita tax to the AFL-CIO would boost member unions' coffers by a combined $45 million a year.

"The debate is who is in the best position to organize workers," said Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Mr. Sweeney supports reducing the amount of money member unions pay to the AFL-CIO, but said the federation must determine how much of a budget cut it can sustain.

Teamsters President James P. Hoffa has received support for his proposal from the Service Employees International Union, Unite Here, the union representing hotel, restaurant and apparel workers, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. …