The Six-Year Itch | The Nation


The Six-Year Itch

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In 1995, when Sweeney came to power, labor was reeling from the Republican takeover of Congress, which occurred partly because so many potentially Democratic working-class voters were disillusioned with Clinton and stayed home. The loss at the polls crystallized swelling undercurrents of discontent with Lane Kirkland's aloof or absent leadership at the helm of the AFL-CIO. Sweeney's "new voices" campaign promised a more energetic federation, including leadership in mobilizing union voters and organizing a million new members a year.

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

David Moberg
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, writes frequently for The Nation on labor issues.

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In a dramatic contrast with the reclusive Kirkland style, Sweeney has worked hard, traveling the country, joining picket lines and delivering labor's message to union members, allies, politicians and even business opponents. Partly as a result, the AFL-CIO and the labor movement have a stronger public presence. Building on local initiatives that were already under way, he has tried to transform central labor councils and, more recently, state federations--the state and local AFL-CIO counterparts that one union official disparages as mere "excrescences" on organized labor--into real organizations that help member unions with organizing, politics, strikes and other needs. He has forged stronger alliances with community organizations, students, academics, religious activists and others. And he has begun reorienting labor's international operations away from its cold war legacy to a new emphasis on building international labor alliances. With AFL-CIO guidance, unions are using their pension-fund power more effectively, sometimes to help organizing. Sweeney has prodded affiliates to "change to organize," encouraged multi-union cooperation, urged unions to focus on core industries and tried to curtail employer anti-union actions through public and political pressure. He is clearly frustrated that he hasn't been able to do more but insists he's still optimistic. "We never said these were short-term goals," he said. "This was for the long term. We had to rebuild the culture of organizing."

Despite these successes, however, Sweeney has yet to carve out a clear role for the federation in organizing. Kirkland always maintained that the individual unions, not the federation, were responsible for organizing (although he did underwrite former textile union organizer Richard Bensinger's proposal for the autonomous Organizing Institute, a center for training and creating a culture of organizing). Sweeney, by contrast, believes that the AFL-CIO can--and must--play a part, but he is still attempting to figure out what exactly that should be.

One of Sweeney's first major efforts was the strawberry workers' campaign: The AFL-CIO prepared a sophisticated strategy with many pressure points, but the workers themselves hadn't been adequately mobilized, and it took years to win one small contract. Multi-union efforts in Seattle; New Orleans; Stamford, Connecticut; and Las Vegas (the last run by the building trades with some AFL-CIO money) ranged from near-total failure to modest success, although coordinated organizing at Los Angeles and San Francisco airports has gone well, boosted by AFL-CIO campaigns to assure that employers remain neutral in organizing drives. Sweeney expanded the valuable Organizing Institute six years ago, but it hasn't grown since then. And a task force of intermediate-level union officers that used to meet regularly to critique and encourage one another's organizing work has been inactive recently. Now the focus is less on changing to organize and more on each union's meeting its share of a targeted million new members a year. The Union Summer student recruitment paid off dramatically in a new pro-labor campus movement, but it has been scaled back sharply from around 1,000 students the first year to 200 in recent summers, joined by small summer efforts with retirees, seminarians and lawyers. An $11 million fund (smaller than projected) has helped underwrite important organizing, but it has also been plagued by political squabbling (although new guidelines may focus its grantmaking).

Sweeney has urged unions to target their core industries, so that organizing builds bargaining power, not just bigger membership. Some unions--SEIU, HERE, UNITE (textile and apparel) and a few others--have fully embraced the idea and even swapped locals to concentrate strength, but the majority of unions still insist on organizing anybody they can. For example, twenty unions, some with no healthcare experience, objected when SEIU's Stern wanted to establish exclusive jurisdiction for a $20 million campaign to organize upstate New York nursing homes and hospitals, where SEIU is already dominant.

The challenge for the AFL-CIO lies in effectively harnessing the affiliates to meet the movement's larger organizing goals. And the slow, uneven response of affiliates is a main reason the labor movement still is not growing. Sweeney's first organizing director, Richard Bensinger, was brutally frank with union presidents about their organizing inadequacies. (Bensinger's style clashed with that of other top aides, and he was pushed out of the job, a decision that most union organizing directors still regret.) Even well-intentioned union presidents have trouble getting many of their locals--which control half the labor movement's resources--to take organizing seriously.

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