When John J. Sweeney won his insurgent campaign for president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, he set forth two fundamental goals: to restore labor's political muscle and to reverse the steady decline in union membership.
"Organized labor [has] declined from a political powerhouse to a political patsy," Sweeney, a former Bronx elevator operator, declared as he accepted the presidency. "The most important thing we can do, starting right now, today, is to organize every working woman and man."
John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO since 1995, is likely to face contenders for his job in June.
Since then, the AFL-CIO's hold on the labor force has declined as has its influence in Washington. Despite labor's $147 million, all-out effort last year on behalf of the Democrats, President Bush was reelected with 10 million more votes than in 2000 and GOP majorities increased in the House and Senate.
None of the union presidents said they blame Sweeney for the defeats. Under Sweeney's aggressive political program, union members have sharply increased their share of the total vote, and their Democratic margins remain high. Still, Democratic losses at the polls have Sweeney and his political lieutenants on the defensive.
Now the establishment candidate, Sweeney is facing his first serious challenge as he seeks a fourth term -- and it is from his own base, the labor left. The AFL's 60 member unions will meet in July to choose the next president, but the struggle for votes has already begun.
Although he has not announced his candidacy, John Wilhelm, president of the hospitality division of Unite Here (the recently merged needle trades and hotel workers unions), is widely viewed among union leaders as a likely challenger. Wilhelm declined to comment.
The stakes in the fight for the presidency of the labor federation are much higher than control over the AFL-CIO bureaucracy on 16th Street NW, just north of the White House.
Organized labor is in the midst of a debate over the structure of existing unions, strategies to deal with global employers and the threats posed by such large corporations as Wal-Mart. The combination of a contest for power and growing pressure for major restructuring has split labor into two camps.
Among the unions that appear likely to support Sweeney are the Steelworkers, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Communications Workers of America.
But even some Sweeney loyalists have gone public with their criticism. Harold A. Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, recently wrote in a memo to the AFL that "for the last three election cycles at the national/federal level, the only measure that is truly relevant is that labor has come up short." Schaitberger said the AFL "must also end its practice of relegating itself to being subservient to one political party or our political and legislative influence will continue to decline."
In an interview, Sweeney said that he has enough votes to win: "I am confident I have very significant support from the affiliates."
Among those unions likely to back Wilhelm or another insurgent are Unite Here, the Service Employees International Union, the Laborers' International Union, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Critics contend that because organized labor's survival is in such danger, Sweeney's cautious, consensus-building strategies have become a liability when tough leadership is needed.
Some point to disturbing trends in union membership: The percentage of workers represented by unions has dropped from 15.5 percent in 1994 to 12.9 percent in 2003. In 1955, when the AFL and CIO merged, 33.2 percent of U.S. workers were in unions.