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AFL-CIO's Sweeney Defeats Challenge From Dissidents

Measure to Increase Spending on Political Activities Approved

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page A07

LAS VEGAS, March 2 -- AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, in a show of power, turned back a strong challenge to his control from dissident unions and then won a major increase in spending on labor political activities during a federation meeting here Wednesday.

Sweeney's forces defeated an effort led by Andrew L. Stern of the Service Employees International Union and James P. Hoffa of the Teamsters to shift $35 million of union funds into union organizing. The dissident unions had challenged federation policies under Sweeney and discussed the possibility of running a candidate against Sweeney.

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, center, with United Steel Workers President Leo Gerard, right, and AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, talks to reporters during a news conference in Las Vegas. (John Locher -- AP)

The 15 to 7 vote of the AFL-CIO executive committee was certain to strengthen Sweeney's bid for a third term, when the full AFL-CIO meets in Chicago in July.

By a 14 to 8 vote, Sweeney also won approval of a proposal to nearly double spending on political and legislative activity to $90 million every two years. This money will be used in the fight President Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security. It will also be used in 2006 and 2008 to back endorsed candidates, almost all of them Democrats.

Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean met with union leaders to discuss a campaign to block Bush's Social Security plan.

At a news conference after the executive committee vote, Stern declined to say what his plans are concerning his union's continued affiliation with the AFL-CIO. In recent months, Stern has warned that he would pull the SEIU out of the AFL-CIO unless major structural changes are made.

Stern has called for more radical proposals than any under consideration here, including granting the AFL-CIO power to force union mergers to create institutions large enough to bargain with global corporations, and to empower the AFL-CIO to prevent unfair competition between member unions.

Stern stressed that Sweeney's approach will fail to revive organized labor, which represents 12.5 percent of the workforce, the lowest level in a century. He said that the $35 million sought by his forces was essential to rebuilding labor's base.

"I don't think there is a plan for organizing," Stern said. He criticized the massive boost in political spending: "I do not put much faith in elected officials of either party."

Sweeney and his allies argued that it is essential to change the political climate before costly organizing can be successful. Sweeney agreed to send a much smaller amount of money back to the unions for organizing.

"Unless we change the anti-worker policies that are destroying good jobs and stop the forces -- from the National Labor Relations Board to state governments -- that are rolling back workers' rights, we can't win gains for workers," Sweeney said.

In another boost to Sweeney, hotel workers union (HERE) President John Wilhelm, another of the anti-Sweeney dissidents, pointedly put off any declaration of whether he will run against Sweeney.

He said he will wait until the issues of how resources are invested in politics and organizing are resolved at the July convention.

Throughout the meetings here, both allies and critics of Sweeney, 70, have noted how effectively he has maintained control of the process. Sweeney has made sure that he has majorities on every subcommittee, and that allies, including Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, are in control of the agenda.

One of the major criticisms of Sweeney has been that he is a cautious leader, willing to take action only when he has the near-unanimous consent of all 58 member unions. Sweeney was elected in 1995 on a platform promising to strengthen labor in the political arena after the Republican victories of 1994, and to stop the steady loss of union members in the face of global competition, Republican hostility to unions and a business community increasingly opposed to unionization.

Sweeney succeeded on the political front, increasing the percentage of the electorate made up of union households. But these gains have not translated into Democratic presidential or congressional victories in 2000 or 2004.

On the organizing front, labor continues to collapse. The percentage of workers who are in unions has fallen from 15.8 percent in 1994 to 12.5 percent last year, while private sector unionization rates have fallen from 10.8 percent to 7.9 percent in the same period.

The challenge to Sweeney's leadership was mounted by some of the largest and fastest-growing unions in the federation, including the Food and Commercial Workers, the Laborers and the newly merged hotel and needle trades unions, Unite Here.

These unions were easily defeated here, where the vote is roughly, but not exactly, based on one vote per union, giving smaller unions much more leverage. Many small unions opposed Stern's forced merger proposals, believing that they would be the first to be ordered to merge with larger partners.

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