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The Six-Year Itch | The Nation

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The Six-Year Itch

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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.

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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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.

Political losses, organizing declines, internal conflicts--does all this mean that Sweeney has failed as leader of the American labor movement? Not really. Over the six years since he was elected in an unusual challenge to the incumbent leadership, the American labor movement has stirred itself from somnambulent marginality to become noticeably more effective in giving workers a voice in American life. Sweeney's palace rebellion and rhetoric of change have inspired a more open and innovative spirit throughout much of the labor movement and stimulated a serious discussion about organizing.

While Sweeney has made mistakes, there's blame to share. The labor movement is suffering from broad strategic failures--limited commitment to organizing in many individual unions, fragmented organizational structure, inadequate involvement of members in union work and decision-making, and an excessively narrow and shortsighted social vision. Despite Sweeney's nominal position as the embodiment of "Big Labor," the AFL-CIO is a voluntary federation of affiliated unions with no members of its own and little power to compel affiliates to do anything. "I had more authority as president of a union than I do now," Sweeney recently lamented. The problem has been a lack of consensus within the labor movement, especially on organizing, not only between those unions that organize aggressively and those that don't but even among those that are leading the charge. "What would I do if I were John Sweeney?" mused Stern, who has dedicated half of SEIU's budget to organizing. "I don't know." At the same time, affiliated unions rightly expect the federation to deliver something for the money they spend on it. And notwithstanding its accomplishments, the AFL-CIO under Sweeney has not yet taken the drastic, systematic action required to lead labor out of its dire straits.

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