Leadership Challenge Could Rend AFL-CIO

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 24, 2005

A battle over the future of the labor movement that will play out this week pits a 54-year-old iconoclast willing to break rules and tradition against two labor chieftains in their seventies who are deeply committed to union solidarity.

With the AFL-CIO in a decades-long decline in membership and prestige, and dissidents threatening to bolt, the stakes in the power struggle at a convention in Chicago are enormous. Federation President John J. Sweeney is expected to win election to a fourth term. But he and his chief ally, Gerald W. McEntee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, face the threat of major defections from a coalition of insurgent unions led by Andrew L. Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.

Stern, a charismatic and combative leader with roots in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and 1970s, is considered likely to pull his union out of the AFL-CIO, and may take three other major unions with him.

The United Farm Workers union said Friday it intends to join Stern's Change to Win coalition, although it intends to remain part of the AFL-CIO.

Stern is challenging his one-time mentor, Sweeney, who preceded him as president of the SEIU. In addition, Stern's SEIU has challenged organizing in Iowa and California by McEntee's AFSCME, setting the stage for a bare-knuckles battle between the nation's No. 1 union, with 1.35 million members, and the No. 2 union, with 1.31 million.

Stern and his allies want to convert the AFL-CIO from a loose federation of 56 unions into a far more powerful institution that would be authorized to reward unions that bring in new members and punish those that do not, grant exclusive rights to those unions that dominate representation in a given employment sector, and effectively force mergers to build far fewer but stronger unions.

The insurgents would shrink the federation's Washington headquarters and shift millions of dollars into organizing drives.

The unions considering joining Stern in a walkout are the Teamsters, the Food and Commercial Workers, and Unite Here, which represents hotel and needletrades workers. Terence M. O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union, is part of the Change to Win coalition but, like the farm workers, will not leave the AFL-CIO.

Four of the dissident unions are threatening to boycott the Chicago convention. If they do, they will withhold nearly $7 million in back dues. If they disaffiliate, they take about $35 million from the AFL-CIO, which has already been forced to lay off more than a quarter of its 400-person workforce.

The conflict has been building to a crisis for three years. Sweeney, 71, won the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995 on a promise to halt labor's decline, but he has been unable to do so. The share of the nation's workforce represented by unions has dwindled from 35 percent in 1955, when the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) merged, to 12.5 percent, in a pattern similar to that in most industrialized countries. During Sweeney's tenure, the share of the workforce in unions has fallen from 14.9 to 12.5 percent, and in the private sector from 10.3 to 7.9 percent.

This decline is compounded by unions fighting each other to organize the same workers. Sweeney's consensus approach to leadership, according to Stern and other critics, stops him from stepping between competing unions. The AFL-CIO is seeing unions suffering severe membership losses -- such as the steelworkers and autoworkers -- trying to organize food processing and health care employees in drives that splinter organized labor, critics say, instead of strengthening it.

Sweeney describes Stern's insurgency as "a move for whatever reason to gain power."

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