By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 1, 2005
Four dissident union presidents have demanded that their members' names be removed from the AFL-CIO's master list of 13 million households, attacking what many consider to be organized labor's most important tool to influence political campaigns and legislative proceedings on Capitol Hill.
"It's the heart and soul of labor," said an official at the AFL-CIO who is worried about the growing hostilities within the labor movement. Top Democrats in the House and Senate have privately voiced concern over the latest development in the split between federation President John J. Sweeney and four major unions determined to force him out of office.
The AFL-CIO uses the membership lists to mobilize union households in elections and to build grass-roots lobbying programs to support or oppose legislation.
The action by the presidents of the Service Employees International Union, Teamsters, Laborers and Unite Here is the most serious attack on Sweeney's administration. The membership of the four unions exceeds 4 million, a third of the AFL-CIO total.
John Wilhelm, who runs the hospitality industry division of Unite Here, is considering challenging Sweeney for the presidency of the federation when the AFL-CIO meets in Chicago in July. In addition, SEIU President Andrew Stern has threatened to pull out of the AFL-CIO unless major policy and program changes are made.
In sharply written letters, the presidents demanded that the names of their members be pulled. "Within 5 days of the date of this letter please provide to me a notarized letter stating that the file has been deleted in its entirety and all membership files of this union be deleted as well," Teamsters President James P. Hoffa wrote in a letter to Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO's political director.
All four unions wrote that they would be willing to provide the AFL-CIO with their membership lists "when appropriate" on a case-by-case basis after receiving a request. Officials of the unions said that each would be willing, for example, to turn lists over to help out in the coming New Jersey race for governor.
The letters to the AFL-CIO did not spell out reasons for the requests to delete the names. In comments not for attribution, aides to the union presidents complained that the AFL-CIO has compiled detailed information on their members, from gun ownership to identifying single mothers, that has not been provided to the unions. In addition, they contended that the AFL-CIO has used its control of the lists to become the exclusive representative of labor to Democratic officials, preventing presentation of differing views.
Aides to House and Senate Democratic leaders said they did not want to publicly comment on an internal fight within a crucial constituency group. James Manley, a spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), said:
"The AFL-CIO and each affiliate union, Teamsters, SEIU, Laborers and Unite Here, are all fighting for the same issues: protecting Social Security, the right to organize, better wages. In the end, this remains an internal labor issue."
"However, Senator Reid is confident this will not lessen the AFL-CIO or any affiliated union's commitment to America's working families, nor lessen their ability to impact the political process," Manley added.