The Six-Year Itch : John Sweeney Sees the AFL-CIO through Some Growing Pains

By Moberg, David | The Nation, September 3, 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Six-Year Itch : John Sweeney Sees the AFL-CIO through Some Growing Pains


Moberg, David, The Nation


When the executive council of the AFL-CIO met in Los Angeles this past February, the news could hardly have been worse for president John Sweeney. The labor movement had bet the ranch on Al Gore, from early endorsement to yeoman election work, but Gore lost--partly because he wouldn't use labor's troops for a recount fight in Florida. As if Gore's spinelessness, incompetence and neglect of labor's populist themes hadn't been bad enough, Republican control of Congress exposed labor to untempered attacks by a Republican Party more right-wing and pro-corporate than under Reagan. During their first days in power, Bush and the Republicans were already rolling back belated pro-labor gestures by Clinton, such as new occupational safety and health regulations on ergonomics--to prevent injuries related to workplace design--that labor had fought ten years to enact.

And that wasn't all. After celebrating in the previous year that the union share of the work force hadn't declined, as it had during most of the previous two decades, Sweeney faced dismal news: The union share had dropped once again--to 13.5 percent of all workers and 9 percent of the private sector. Even by the AFL-CIO's generous counting, the number of new workers organized in 2000 had fallen by one-third, to 400,000. When Sweeney told the council that the figures reflected a real crisis for organized labor, John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE), spontaneously rose and argued forcefully that the AFL-CIO had to focus its resources and programs much more on politics and organizing. Such a shift will be wrenching but necessary, he said, recounting how his union had forgone a much-needed health and safety department to put money into organizing. It was a surprising challenge from an ardent Sweeney supporter in a body notorious for the rarity of freewheeling debate. Sweeney bluntly replied that all federation activities were important to some union, and there was no more discussion, but over the following months nearly everyone at the AFL-CIO was busy explaining how his or her work contributed to either politics or organizing.

Then, in late March, Carpenters union president Doug McCarron withdrew his 500,000-member union, a key component of the interrelated building trades, from the AFL-CIO. A maverick who took little part in the federation and had contentious relationships with some other building trades unions, McCarron criticized Sweeney as he departed for not making "fundamental changes" in the federation to promote organizing, as he had done in his union. For many years McCarron had not paid AFL-CIO dues for all of his members, although he and the Sweeney administration had reached an agreement, later dropped after some executive council members objected, to ignore the union's past underpayments as it moved toward full payment of its obligations. Still, McCarron continued to ask what the union got for its money, and the Carpenters' departure accentuated growing questions about AFL-CIO spending. From 1995 to 2000, unions increased their payments to the federation by about one-fourth--not counting special political assessments--as the federation's staff increased by 10 percent (to 480) and the annual budget grew from $150 million to $190 million, with 22 percent attributed to organizing (scheduled to rise to 30 percent soon).

Nearly all union leaders chided McCarron for leaving (and for not participating in the AFL-CIO before he left), but some--like Wilhelm and Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees union (SEIU), which Sweeney used to head--felt that McCarron was raising legitimate issues about focus and priorities at the AFL-CIO. Sweeney "works so hard that he has multiple balls in the air at the same time," said AFSCME president Gerald McEntee, a key promoter of Sweeney's original candidacy. "A lot of us do that. Sometimes we don't pay enough attention to one of them, and it hits the floor," as organizing has for Sweeney.

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