PITTSBURGH - AFL-CIO President John Sweeney struggled to put a new face on the labor movement yesterday, announcing that the union will concentrate its energy on organizing workers rather than influencing politicians.
"Our political system is awash with dirty money, corporate money and foreign money," Mr. Sweeney declared to some 900 delegates at the AFL-CIO's 22nd Constitutional Convention, which began yesterday. "It is corrupting our elected officials, and it is corroding the soul of our nation."
The federation's executive council called for campaign-finance reform that includes public financing of campaigns, free media time for candidates and stricter limits on contributions.
Years of contributing "soft money" to political campaigns have failed to empower the labor movement, Mr. Sweeney said. "We must stop giving money to political parties who won't give unions the respect we deserve, and we must stop supporting political candidates who won't support working families."
But little mention was made yesterday of a Senate inquiry into a $1.5 million contribution the AFL-CIO gave to Citizen Action, a liberal consumer group that was accused last month of helping launder money for the 1996 re-election campaign of Teamsters President Ron Carey.
Three consultants to the Carey campaign pleaded guilty last week to charges that they helped launder money for Mr. Carey's re-election bid, and they agreed to cooperate with federal investigators looking into the possibility that the AFL-CIO and the Democratic National Committee participated in the plan.
"It's a very serious matter, and I hope it will be cleared up soon," Mr. Sweeney told reporters, adding that he was confident the AFL-CIO had done nothing wrong in regard to the Teamsters election.
AFL-CIO spokeswoman Denise Mitchell said the federation is cooperating with the investigation.
"We believe we're doing all the right things in this review, and once all of the information is aired, it will show that the AFL-CIO did nothing wrong," she said.
Miss Mitchell said the controversy surrounding Mr. Carey's campaign was "in no way" detracting from the progress the federation was making in organizing.
Though recent efforts to organize workers have failed to significantly boost union membership, Mr. Sweeney cited several union drives as evidence that the labor movement is once again gaining strength after years of corporate downsizing and leadership scandals weakened its voice in the workplace. …