The debate was lively and sometimes fierce in Las Vegas as leaders of the AFL-CIO began a week of meetings that the labor union federation’s president, John Sweeney, called “probably one of the most important in the history of the American labor movement.” There is general agreement that organized labor, facing a continuing decline in its share of the workforce and intense political and corporate hostility, needs to become much more aggressive and effective at both politics and organizing. But despite several months of exchanges of reform proposals, the members of the federation’s Executive Council appeared deeply divided about what form change should take.

Although much of the debate has focused on the structure of the labor movement–whether unions should merge into a few giants that focus on distinct sectors–the fight may come down to money. But the money itself may be less important in its own right than as a symbolic statement about what unions should be doing.

One key, contentious issue–first raised by Service Employees president Andy Stern, then proposed by the Teamsters’ Jimmy Hoffa in a form that found new support–is a proposed rebate of half the dues that national unions pay to the AFL-CIO if they reach a certain threshold of spending for organizing. Leaders of unions such as UNITE HERE, the Laborers, and the United Food and Commercial Workers are said to strongly support the rebate. John Wilhelm, the hospitality industry president of UNITE HERE and still considered a potential candidate against Sweeney in the election for the federation presidency at this summer’s convention, says it’s the pivotal issue at this meeting.

But some unions, ranging from the Communications Workers (CWA) to the Firefighters, are opposed, for a variety of reasons. Others, such as AFSCME (public workers), would support a compromise plan for smaller rebates, which Sweeney apparently backs, even though they consider it to be practically of little value if perhaps a moral incentive. Still other unions are undecided, or they want to figure out first what resources the AFL-CIO actually needs to do the work that everyone thinks should be done.

There’s a strong sense that the budget for politics should be set first, not last, as is usually the case; but when Sweeney offered a proposal to this effect in the political action committee, it was tabled (on a motion by a supporter) because there was no clear majority support for it. It’s an indication that even though Sweeney is attempting to adapt to the range of proposals that have been offered, he’s not entirely in the driver’s seat at this meeting.

The budget of the AFL-CIO is roughly $130 million, mainly from per capita dues but also including roughly $25 million from fees earned by the union program providing credit cards to members. Larry Cohen, who is likely to become president of the CWA next summer, argued that the rebates would at most provide the group of qualifying unions $42 million, compared with the $5.5 billion in total dues income for all unions. While it’s a small share of overall income, the $42 million could deeply undermine financing for the AFL-CIO’s programs, which even many of the rebate advocates want to increase. “Everybody would like more money,” Cohen said, “but we need a common good.”

Paul Booth, assistant to the president of AFSCME, also contended that the 50 percent rebate was “unjustifiable,” and that in any case the size of a rebate should follow a decision on the political budget. Booth argued that the best strategy for improving the success of organizing drives was neutralizing employer opposition, which is achieved through a variety of methods. These range from bargaining with employers for neutrality in future organizing drives to using political and strategic campaign pressure to lessen opposition to unions. In many ways, Booth argued, even political action is part of the strategy to neutralize employer opposition. Yet other than spending money, neutralizing opposition and minimizing competition among unions, many of the reform proposals now on the table–from merging unions to strengthening democracy–have no proven track record in boosting organizing, whatever their own merits.

But Wilhelm argues that it makes sense to give money back to unions that commit to organizing in their core industries. Although he says he thinks the AFL-CIO could and should play a larger role in organizing as well as in politics, he notes that the overwhelming consensus among unions is that organizing is the job of the individual unions.

It might be tricky, however, to make sure that the rebate money is being spent any more productively by the national unions. “Everybody likes a dues cut,” one union staffer observed, “and my boss would like to make up for money lost on a big strike last year.” And the motivations for the rebate can get even more complex: At least one big union hopes that the rebate criteria will pressure many small unions that may not qualify to seek a merger with a larger union.

So behind the debate over money looms once again the larger questions about what the AFL-CIO should do, what will really increase organizing dramatically and how the labor movement should be structured. Sweeney’s comments indicate that few, if any, of these issues will be resolved this week but will require many more meetings between now and a potentially turbulent convention in the summer.

But despite the occasional outbursts, there was widespread feeling that the discussions were long overdue, even if participants sometimes were talking past each other, as one organizer observed.

At this point, the tension is creative. “I view these meetings in the Steelworkers context as like an average membership meeting before a contract,” said Steelworkers president Leo Gerard. “A good contract,” added AFSCME president Gerald McEntee.

But even that level of spirited debate is rare at the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO. It may be a hopeful sign.