Labor Intense

LAS VEGAS -- “I think John Sweeney's administration is rhetorically prepared to embrace any and all proposals for change to stay in power,” one of American labor's dissident leaders told me in January. “If John Sweeney is re-elected, he's out of gas. Nothing is going to change over there” at the AFL-CIO, and American labor's, headquarters, where Sweeney has been president since 1995 and where he is up for re-election in July.

“This should all be clearer,” the leader continued, “by Vegas.”

Vegas -- the executive-council meeting of the federation held from March 1–3 in Las Vegas -- has come and gone, and while some things are clearer, others are murkier, and most everything is grimmer. Las Vegas marked the moment when the federation had to confront the dissidents in its midst -- chiefly, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters, and UNITE HERE (clothing and hotel workers). The dissidents, fed up with the federation's poor growth since Sweeney took over, were rallying behind a Teamster proposal to rebate a sizable chunk of the AFL-CIO's budget to the organizing programs of member unions. They were defeated by a coalition of pro-Sweeney unions, though they did win the votes of unions representing 40 percent of the federation's membership. By a near-identical vote, the pro-Sweeney unions also prevailed on a measure to recommend doubling the size of the federation's political budget -- a proposal that seems to ensure that the AFL-CIO's organizing budget will not substantially increase.

In the turmoil following the vote, three major unions left Las Vegas talking about quitting the AFL-CIO altogether. SEIU President Andy Stern has said since his union's convention last summer that the SEIU would either succeed in reforming the federation or, failing that, “build something stronger.” Following the two votes in Vegas, he was joined in his threat to pull out by UNITE HERE President Bruce Raynor, who told the Prospect that his union's executive board would meet later in March to look at the disaffiliation option. Sources close to Teamsters President James P. Hoffa said that a Teamster pullout is under consideration as well.

The frustration, and even rage, that burst forth in Vegas -- Stern and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) President Gerald McEntee, a Sweeney loyalist, engaged in several public shouting matches -- has been building for years. In 1995, Sweeney took the helm of the AFL-CIO with a vow to rebuild the labor movement's declining numbers and sagging political clout. Though Sweeney is universally acknowledged to have greatly improved the federation's political program, the continuing drop in union members -- from 14.5 percent of the workforce when Sweeney took office to just 12.5 percent today -- has reduced unions' capacity to deliver even passable contracts for their members, and has eroded the Democrats' ability to carry such onetime union strongholds as Ohio.

And things keep getting worse. The past couple of years alone have seen the debacle of the southern California supermarket strike and the evisceration of the contracts and pensions of airline workers and retirees. Later this year, George W. Bush's appointees to the National Labor Relations Board are expected to strike down “card check,” the process through which workers can win union recognition without enduring employer opposition -- the primary way unions have been able to organize workers over the past decade.

A number of unions -- AFSCME, the SEIU, the Laborers, the Teachers -- were still managing to grow recently by massively shifting resources into organizing and by maximizing their political clout to assist organizing campaigns. And with disaster piling upon disaster, some union strategists looked at those successes and began to posit radical remedies. Steve Lerner, the mastermind of the SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign, argued that nearly 40 of the AFL-CIO's 57 affiliates were too small to commit serious resources to organizing, and that the federation should compel them to merge into roughly 20 large unions. Lerner's proposal, which the SEIU adopted as its own, went nowhere fast; even Laborers President Terence O'Sullivan, a staunch SEIU ally, defends the existence of each of the 15 building trades unions, no matter how small. But there was greater support for another proposal to mandate the rebate of federation dues to those unions with genuine organizing programs. By the time they got to Vegas, the unions seemed locked into a peculiarly fruitless chicken-or-egg debate over whether it was more important to increase funds for organizing (which would produce the new members that would enable labor's allies to win elections) or politics (which would yield the election victories that would create a Congress willing to amend labor laws so that unions could resume wholesale organizing).

For all that, the Teamster dues-rebate proposal around which the dissident unions rallied seemed more symbolic than real, and an inadequate expression of the deeper discontent fueling the revolt. Leaders on both sides of the question acknowledged that the rebates would augment their own unions' organizing programs by no more than 10 percent. Ultimately, however, the real impact wouldn't be the added funds to the member unions; it would be the radical diminution in the size of the AFL-CIO's budget and staff. And it's that diminution that seems closer to the heart of the dissidents' revolt. “We have to blow up the AFL-CIO bureaucracy,” John Wilhelm, who heads the hotel side of UNITE HERE, told a labor forum in Los Angeles in February. “The staff should be cut by at least 50 percent.” For Wilhelm and his allies, John Sweeney's AFL-CIO has become the symbol of a slow-footed and unsustainable status quo.

Wilhelm, Raynor, and Stern -- each of whom has restructured his own union to facilitate more organizing -- decry the lack of urgency they see at the federation and throughout much of the movement generally. At a 1999 AFL-CIO executive-council meeting, Wilhelm recounts, staff economist David Chu made a brilliant presentation projecting the decline of those economic sectors where unions were strong and the rise of sectors where unions were all but nonexistent. “It was devastating,” says Wilhelm. “But we don't have discussions at these meetings; we have reports. When he was done, I raised my hand and said, ‘Can we spend a few minutes discussing the implications of this?' But we didn't.”

For more than a year, labor has been abuzz with the possibility that Wilhelm might challenge Sweeney for re-election at this July's AFL-CIO convention. Sweeney's defenders insist he's as vigorous as he's ever been. His critics note that he has the same senior staff as when he took office a decade ago, and that the people who built the present federation are set in their ways and not likely to fundamentally change it. Both sides acknowledge that, under Sweeney, AFL-CIO staff has grown and that some economies need to be made.

Wilhelm, by contrast, has run just about the leanest operation of any major union, directing virtually all resources to organizing and corporate research. A compelling speaker and brilliant organizer, Wilhelm is known for taking a weak Las Vegas local and building it into a powerhouse that represents virtually all major Vegas hotels; he has transformed Vegas into the one American city with a well-paid service sector. His critics argue, however, that by declining to build a national staff (HERE, for instance, had no communications department), he created a union that's had difficulty winning its first nationwide action, the simultaneous contract campaigns in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

A Wilhelm presidency would certainly betoken a fresh burst of activism and experimentation at the federation. In the wake of the Vegas meeting, however, and the defeat of the dissident coalition, it's not at all apparent how Wilhelm could assemble the votes to oust Sweeney. Thus, the palpable discontent of the dissidents continues to grow.

The ferment of recent months has certainly engendered the most far-reaching discussion of labor's mission, structure, and strategy in half a century. It's possible that from that discussion, the movement will gain a new sense of purpose and direction. It's also possible, though, that the movement will go the way of various left sectarian parties of yore -- in which members were in fundamental accord on all key issues, but where defeat and marginalization led to infighting and splits. Between reshaping itself to counter the challenges of the time and descending into the righteous fragmentation of Trotskyist sects, American labor is walking one very slippery tightrope.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.

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