The Six-Year Itch

The Six-Year Itch

John Sweeney sees the AFL-CIO through some growing pains.


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.

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.

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.

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.

Meanwhile, employers everywhere still doggedly fight unionization. The challenge is especially great in manufacturing, where businesses wield the credible threat that they’ll move overseas if workers unionize. In response, the AFL-CIO has organized a “voice at work” strategy: Unions and central labor councils recruit community leaders, clergy, politicians and others to publicly criticize anti-union employers, encourage workers forming a union or urge governmental action, such as recent legislation in Milwaukee and California requiring private employers with public financing to be neutral or not use public funds to resist when workers try to organize [see David Glenn, “Labor of Love,” page 30]. To take just one recent local example, in Kansas City, Missouri, American Federation of Teachers organizers at Health Midwest credit their central labor council with drumming up support from politicians, clergy and other labor leaders to limit the effectiveness of the hospital’s anti-union campaign. But local campaigns for the right to organize have been spotty, and the national AFL-CIO efforts have been concentrated during a week in June each year, when they need to be year-round and unrelenting.

Given that many unions continue to compete for members and refuse to cooperate out of narrow institutional self-interest, it’s not surprising that the affiliates have disparate views on what their common federation should do. Should the AFL-CIO become more directly involved in organizing, perhaps focusing help on the smaller or less aggressive unions? Or should it focus on changing the climate for organizing, especially through politics? Should it provide affiliates with services or with strategic direction? Some key organizers think the AFL-CIO should still push laggard unions to organize more and help to coordinate more strategic, coordinated campaigns. But others simply want the fed to help clear the path for unions already committed to such methods. “The problem is that the federation needs to decide to do a few things well rather than being everything to everybody,” argues SEIU executive vice president and organizing director Tom Woodruff. “It’s still true that workers don’t fundamentally have a real right to organize in this country, and that’s not the public perception. That’s the right campaign for the federation to run. That’s the one they haven’t run effectively up to this point.”

HERE’s John Wilhelm believes that the federation “ought to put the same focus and dollars into organizing as into politics, and I think the AFL-CIO needs to have the same leadership role in organizing as in politics,” rather than defer to the individual unions, as many other leaders prefer. But because of the lack of consensus at the AFL-CIO, the leadership on organizing has begun to shift informally to an increasingly tight circle of unions–most large, a few small–that already have good track records. Indeed, some even suggest that the US labor movement should follow the German model: consolidate into a few giant unions with a tiny and unimportant national federation.

If Sweeney manages to forge some agreement among member unions, on the other hand, the AFL-CIO could still play a major role in creating a more favorable climate for organizing, and in stimulating more and better efforts at rebuilding the ranks of the labor movement. So far many of the federation’s organizing efforts have flopped or proved at most partial successes, but at least it has been trying new ideas on a larger canvas. The danger now is that those experiments will be quietly forgotten, not systematically analyzed, and that pessimists will conclude that nothing new and ambitious should be tried.

Whereas organizing has been a particularly divisive topic, “politics has always been the glue that’s held the AFL-CIO together,” as Wilhelm puts it. Notwithstanding the outcome of last fall’s election, the federation under Sweeney can point to an impressive political record. Under political director Steve Rosenthal, AFL-CIO staff–along with representatives loaned from affiliates in key Congressional districts and states, as well as local union officials and activists–have coordinated an energetic campaign to educate, register and turn out union voters. While the number of nonunion voters shrank, labor boosted the union household share of the vote steadily from 19 percent of the electorate in 1992 to 23 percent in 1996 and 26 percent in 2000–with a growing percentage of those households voting for labor-backed candidates. The more messages workers received from their union, especially personal contacts at work, the more effectively unions won over their members. Labor’s political operation has also prospered by educating members about issues rather than simply issuing endorsements.

The AFL-CIO will beef up and refine existing operations as it starts its political organizing this fall, even earlier than in past election cycles. Much of the work will initially focus on issues such as the minimum wage, a patients’ bill of rights and fast track “trade promotion authority,” as well as on educating politicians and organizations about the need to protect workers’ currently thwarted right to organize. But the challenge is larger than that. Without much satisfaction, Rosenthal has tried during previous election cycles to build a seamless, full-time, grassroots political and legislative action operation, so that there would be just as much effort devoted to holding elected officials accountable as to electing them. If that had been in place, the AFL-CIO might have been able to mobilize members on a massive scale against overturning the ergonomics rules or the Bush tax plan.

Even though labor has persuaded Democrats to emphasize bread-and-butter “working families” issues more, there is still excessive deference to party leaders in defining policy battles. And the federation often seems peculiarly reluctant to employ the “street heat” tactics that it advocates for central labor councils. Calling for local hearings on its new immigration policy, which urges a broad amnesty for undocumented immigrants and an end to the punitive sanctions labor once supported, the AFL-CIO said it wanted only a few hundred people to attend each one. The Los Angeles County federation flouted the orders and turned out a huge crowd of 20,000 calling for “amnesty” and “union.” Pressure from local leaders was also largely responsible for the AFL-CIO’s vigorous presence during the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, where labor unions and environmentalists set a new standard in cooperative protest against corporate globalization. In both cases, however, Sweeney proved adaptable rather than trying to shut down the upstarts, as his predecessors might have done. Manufacturing unions have been frustrated that the AFL-CIO did not take issues of trade and deindustrialization seriously enough under Clinton, even though it was part of the coalition that twice blocked renewal of fast-track authority and tried, but failed, to deny permanent normal trading relationship status to China. But the AFL-CIO is mounting an aggressive effort this year to deny fast-track trade authority to Bush.

In the immediate future, the AFL-CIO will focus on forging closer links between politics and organizing, demanding that union-backed politicians at all levels of government fight for the right of workers to join unions freely–either by passing legislation or taking direct action to support workers. “There has to be a direct link of politics and organizing. If we’re going to succeed in politics, we need more members. And a major reason to be involved in politics is to change the environment so that workers can organize,” Rosenthal notes. “Our goal is to build power for working people. The only way to be more powerful is if more workers are in unions.”

Sweeney in August deployed roughly twenty staff members from the field mobilization department to work on politics full time and another twenty to work on organizing, mainly the linkage with politics. While skeptics view the move as a bureaucratic shuffle, the AFL-CIO sees it as responding to the call for more focus on organizing and politics by its main field staff. The goal is to lay the groundwork for eventual reform of labor laws by making the public more conscious of how workers’ rights are systematically violated. Federation officials believe that they opened Al Gore’s eyes by exposing him to workers who had suffered reprisals from their bosses because they tried to form a union and consequently plan to “Algorize” every politician who seeks union support. If Democrats take up the challenge, they can strengthen and reorient their party toward working people–not only immigrant janitors, whose success in organizing and contract fights has now made new janitor organizing far faster and easier, but also highly educated workers, such as engineers, doctors, nurses, university faculty and teaching assistants, who are interested in unionization. But many emerging labor leaders who doubt that the Democrats will see the light argue that labor should seek out sympathetic Republican moderates. Others–like Rosenthal–believe unions should refuse to endorse or should mount primary challenges to Democrats who don’t deliver.

Sweeney still hopes to bring back the Carpenters by the December convention, when he is likely to be the only candidate for a new four-year term as president. But to appease McCarron, he may have to resolve conflicts over organizing among the anachronistically fragmented building trades unions. Since the Carpenters left, Sweeney has welcomed into the AFL-CIO two new unions–one linked to the American Nursing Association and a California school employees’ union. A railway union that had disaffiliated also returned through a merger with an old rival, one of eleven mergers since Sweeney took office. But he has not presided over the bottom-up changes in union culture that would allow for the kind of consolidation and strategic unity the labor movement needs.

Unions have made their greatest progress in recent years, both in politics and organizing, when they have engaged their members as active organizers and campaigners. They have also gained to the extent that they have projected a broad vision of social justice, democracy, economic fairness and worker rights on the job and in society that inspires members, allies and the public. If the labor movement can turn itself into a new civil rights movement, with a sizable number of the 16 million union members feeling that organized labor is truly their voice, the energy from below linked to a grander vision may help to resolve many of the internal conflicts that seem so intractable now. “In order for the movement to grow, we have to recognize that it’s not simply a matter of will,” argues former Sweeney assistant Bill Fletcher. “The equation is vision plus strategy plus organizing equals power. We need a compelling social vision, and organizing the unorganized is not sufficiently compelling.”

Much to his credit, Sweeney got union and environmental representatives to talk about a common vision, but the effort was rudely undermined when the Teamsters and building trades backed Bush’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a move that put labor at odds with vast majorities of Americans, offended key allies and represented retrograde thinking about the future of the American economy. The federation took refuge in an ambiguous earlier resolution favoring “exploration” with appropriate “environmental safeguards,” which let each side in the internal debate save some face but really gave more aid to the drilling proponents. Also, the AFL-CIO followed the auto workers’ misguided lead in accepting low fuel efficiency standards. And it has failed to project ambitious agendas with broad public appeal on other issues as well, such as public financing of elections and universal national health insurance.

There appear to be no rivals for Sweeney’s job. The typical reaction is, Who would want a position with such big responsibilities and so little power? Despite the frustrations, especially about organizing, most union activists respect Sweeney’s hard work in forcing debate on how unions must grow faster and smarter to wield power for their members. Yet Sweeney is a relatively cautious leader, inclined toward finding consensus, even if his rhetoric has often raised hopes that he would push for more radical changes. “When I first ran for office, I said many times it wasn’t who headed the AFL-CIO that was important,” Sweeney said recently, “it was where the AFL-CIO is headed.” Indeed, Sweeney has helped turn the labor movement in the direction of doing–or at least talking about doing–more aggressive organizing, grassroots political mobilization, alliance-building and advocacy for all working people. In any case, Sweeney’s mixed record is far better than the stagnation that preceded him. The test of coming years will be his ability to focus the AFL-CIO and the labor movement on organizing, making it both a political priority and a new civil rights movement, while expanding the social vision that gives meaning to that mission.

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