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.”