In frequently heated discussions here in Las Vegas this week, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney won the first big showdown over how the labor federation should respond to its declining strength. But his opponents, led by Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern, have sufficient strength and determination to carry the fight through the AFL-CIO convention this summer in Chicago.
The test came on dueling proposals about future federation budgets, especially the balance of emphasis between politics and organizing and the size and role of the federation itself. Union leaders on the federation’s Executive Committee voted 15 to 7 on Wednesday to reject a Teamster proposal for a 50 percent rebate of federation dues for unions that pass a threshold test of commitment of resources to organizing in their core industries.
But by a 14-to-8 vote they approved a Sweeney proposal to rebate $15 million, or roughly one-third the amount, to support organizing. Sweeney would also allocate half of the dues paid to the federation each year to politics, increasing grassroots political and legislative mobilization spending by 30 percent to $45 million a year. The official decision-making body, the larger, fifty-four-member Executive Council, is expected to act on this proposal later, perhaps in June, when Sweeney fleshes out the details.
The Teamster rebate proposal had the support of unions that claim to represent about 40 percent of AFL-CIO members–SEIU, UNITE HERE, United Food and Commercial Workers, the Laborers and the Auto Workers. Despite their loss, they were cheered by the rare formation of such a large opposition bloc within the federation and hoped to win other unions over to their side. Stern, who has threatened to leave the AFL-CIO if it isn’t transformed, said he was much “lonelier” when he laid out his proposals for change last November. And UNITE HERE hospitality industry president John Wilhelm said he would decide on whether to challenge Sweeney for the presidency only after the final decision was made on rebates, budgets and restructuring.
“We have to change the AFL-CIO,” said UNITE HERE president Bruce Raynor. “We have no desire to leave the AFL-CIO. Unity is important in the labor movement. Much more important is effectiveness.”
Both sides agreed that the AFL-CIO should concentrate on both politics and organizing, but supporters of the Sweeney proposal argued that political action was crucial to create a climate where it is possible to organize successfully. AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka, for example, argued that bad trade deals, antiunion corporate and governmental policies, deregulation, privatization and other pressures on unions led to a rollback of union strength faster than organizing could overcome. For example, he said, more vigorous organizing alone could not compensate for the loss of 3 million manufacturing jobs in the last four years.