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Labor's Inner War

By Harold Meyerson
Friday, March 4, 2005; Page A21

LAS VEGAS -- The era of bad feelings has descended on American labor.

The executive council meeting of the AFL-CIO that concluded here yesterday leaves the union movement divided into two angry camps, with three major unions considering leaving the federation. A coalition of unions led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters -- the federation's biggest and third-largest unions -- failed to persuade their colleagues to back a Teamster proposal to rebate a sizable chunk of the AFL-CIO's budget to member unions with serious organizing programs. The coalition won the support of unions representing roughly 40 percent of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members, but AFL-CIO President John Sweeney got majority backing for a program that directed more resources to the federation's political program than to organizing.

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Many of the unions supporting Sweeney argue that electoral work is paramount, that without friendly elected officials unions won't be able to win the changes in labor law that will enable them to grow again. The unions aligned with the SEIU say that until labor organizes more members, it won't be able to win on Election Day. "We can't change labor law until we organize a lot more people," John Wilhelm, president of the hotel division of Unite Here (the clothing and hotel workers union), said at a forum in Los Angeles last month.

There's not a union leader here who doesn't acknowledge that labor needs to expand both its political and organizing programs. That labor's leaders couldn't reach a compromise on a trade-off this week suggests there are other tensions in play. Certainly a number of the leaders in the 40 percent grouping are deeply frustrated at the continuing decline of labor's strength and feel that some of their fellow leaders -- and the AFL-CIO under Sweeney -- haven't undertaken sufficiently radical reforms to cope with the crisis. "The collapse of the labor movement is happening on our watch," Wilhelm declared at the Los Angeles forum.

Between now and July, when the AFL-CIO will hold its convention in Chicago to chart labor's future course, this battle will continue. But there's not much likelihood the SEIU-Teamster coalition will be able to amass a majority for its program. "How do we shake them out of their torpor?" one dissident union leader wondered about the Sweeney coalition. "The threat of disaffiliation is the only card we have to play."

For some months it's been widely expected that the SEIU would leave the federation to "build something stronger," in the words of its president, Andy Stern, if the AFL-CIO did not adopt much of the SEIU's reform agenda. But the SEIU is no longer the only union in which there is talk of leaving. "I think disaffiliation is a real threat," says Bruce Raynor, president of Unite Here, which will convene a meeting of its leaders later this month to discuss that option. Similar rumblings are coming from the Teamsters. "You can't run the federation," says Raynor, "without the support of the major unions."

Some unions in the dissident coalition appear to have no intention of leaving. Much of this disaffiliation talk could be a bargaining chip to win further concessions. But the polarization of the movement is taking on a life of its own, with longtime allies now routinely disparaging their old comrades.

Yesterday morning, as the council's final session convened, Paul Booth, a leader of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a pro-Sweeney union, was wearing a 10-year-old T-shirt emblazoned with Sweeney's name -- a keepsake from the 1995 campaign in which progressive unions united in support of Sweeney's successful insurgent candidacy. Spying Anna Burger, who had managed Sweeney's campaign and is now a leader of the dissident coalition, he asked if she had any of the old T-shirts lying around. "Yeah," said Burger, unamused. "We use them for dishrags." Under assault at every turn, labor is lashing out at itself.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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