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Labor's Divisions Widen As Membership Declines

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2005; Page A02

LAS VEGAS -- AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney last week won the latest round in a bitter internal clash over the future of the labor movement by insisting that more money go for future campaigns to unseat Republicans than for trying to shore up the federation's sagging membership.

That showdown pitted Sweeney, AFSCME's Gerald McEntee and the Steelworkers' Leo Gerard against such powerhouse dissidents as the Teamsters' James P. Hoffa, the Service Employees' Andrew L. Stern and the Laborers' Terence M. O'Sullivan.

At last week's labor convention in Las Vegas, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney spoke to reporters together with AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, left, and Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, right, leaders of a coalition to increase the union's spending on political organizing. (John Locher -- Las Vegas Review-journal Via AP)

Since the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations 50 years ago, labor has been in a relentless downward spiral, and factions have bitterly squabbled for years over how best to reverse the trend. Today, the most urgent question among labor leaders and experts is whether a victory by either Sweeney's forces or the dissidents will be enough to pull organized labor out of a nose dive that began when Sweeney, 70, was a 20-year-old student at Queens College.

"These are the darkest days that I have ever seen for American workers across the United States," said McEntee, one of Sweeney's strongest allies.

John Wilhelm, a president of the recently merged Unite Here union, who is contemplating a challenge to Sweeney in the July election for president, added that "we are in deep trouble."

By a 2 to 1 margin, the AFL-CIO's executive committee last week rejected the dissidents' proposal to boost spending on union organizing and membership drives by roughly $35 million. Instead, it adopted the Sweeney plan to nearly double spending on political and legislative mobilization, raising the AFL-CIO's annual commitment to these activities to $45 million.

In 1953, 36 percent of private-sector workers were union members; today, fewer than 8 percent belong to unions. Sweeney argued that the only way to stem the collapse of unionization is to win back Democratic control of the Congress and the White House. Union organizing, in the view of Sweeney and his backers, will be futile in the face of hostile Republican leaders and regulators who allow employers to block union-certification elections and use stalling tactics and threats to discourage organizing drives.

Hoffa, Stern and Wilhelm countered that labor must build up its membership through organizing drives before it can effectively flex its political muscle. They say that over the past decade the AFL-CIO and its member unions have dramatically increased political activities, only to suffer defeat at the polls while seeing a widening of income inequality and a steady decline in union membership.

But some experts warn that neither proposed strategy will work in the face of such overwhelming forces as globalization, the shift of production and services to low-wage countries, and the emergence of Wal-Mart and other mega-corporations that have undermined -- and in some cases obliterated -- union efforts.

Leo Troy, an economics professor at Rutgers University, predicted that unionization in the private sector "will continue to ebb" worldwide in all advanced industrial countries.

Most labor leaders agree that the decline of unions has reached a crisis point. They concede that much of their work is a fight to preserve pay and benefit levels for currently employed members, as opposed to vigorously fighting for improved benefits and expanding membership into new sectors of the economy.

O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers' International Union, said 80 percent of negotiated wage and benefit increases go just to pay for rising health care costs. The price of health coverage, in turn, is being driven up partly by the costs of paying for the uninsured, many of whom work for non-union companies without benefits, O'Sullivan said. "This pattern of cost-shifting is decaying the foundation of our bargaining efforts," he said. "Our members are shouldering the costs of health care for unscrupulous employers."

While the threats facing organized labor have become increasingly apparent, labor leaders for decades have been reluctant to take them seriously.

The decline in union membership had become evident by the early 1970s, but the AFL-CIO president at that time, George Meany, dismissed the decline as irrelevant. In 1972, Meany declared: "To me, it doesn't mean a thing. I have no concern about it, because the history of the trade union movement has shown that when organized workers were a very, very tiny percentage of the workforce, they still accomplished and did things that were important for the entire workforce."

By the late 1970s, labor leaders were caught by surprise when American businesses, faced with foreign competition, abruptly began demanding concessions. This was followed in the 1980s by widespread manufacturing layoffs and plant closings. One of the most stunning blows to labor was Republican President Ronald Reagan's decision in 1981 to fire striking air traffic controllers who were members of a union that had endorsed Reagan's campaign in 1980.

Today, the vast majority of union members -- 84 percent -- live in only 12 states, leaving workers with little organized power in much of the country, according to O'Sullivan of the Laborers union.

"The executive committee has given us a mandate for really big changes in the labor movement," Sweeney told reporters at the end of the meetings in Las Vegas. "I was elected in 1995 on a change platform."

Moments before Sweeney spoke, Wilhelm, at an impromptu session with reporters, anticipated Sweeney's comments and preemptively dismissed them as empty promises and "the rhetoric of change."

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