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John Sweeney's Real Triumphs

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

At the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, American labor will see a changing of the guard. John Sweeney, head of the federation since 1995, is stepping down, and Rich Trumka, Sweeney's deputy for the past 14 years, is ascending to the presidency.

How do we assess Sweeney's tenure as president? That question was actually posed to him, prospectively, at the news conference that immediately followed his initial election. The expectations for American labor were uncommonly high at that moment: Sweeney had just run the only successful insurgent campaign for the AFL-CIO's presidency in the federation's history, based on renewing labor's commitment to organizing after decades of declining membership. No surprise, then, that Sweeney said he should be judged by his record in reversing that decline.

If we hold Sweeney to that standard, he fails to meet his own test. Labor's numbers continued to dwindle most of the past 14 years; they have modestly ticked up since 2007. Yet holding Sweeney to his own standard would not provide a fair measure of his presidency.

If the past 14 years prove anything, it's that organizing private-sector workers in America is no longer possible given the sad state of labor law (which effectively encourages employers to illegally destroy organizing campaigns by failing to sanction such behavior or imposing almost nonexistent penalties). The reason 37 percent of public-sector workers are unionized, compared with just 7.5 percent of private-sector workers, isn't that so many teachers are socialists while sales clerks are capitalists. It's that unlike many private employers, governments (at least in the blue states) don't greet their workers' attempts to unionize by firing them.

The past four years have provided a further test of Sweeney's responsibility, or lack thereof, for labor's failure to grow. At the AFL-CIO's 2005 convention, a number of unions left the federation to form a rival organization, Change to Win. Though the split was as much about personalities as about agenda, the chief argument was that the AFL-CIO was too top-heavy and too obsessed with politics to effectively boost organizing. The Change to Win unions, some of them headed by legendarily successful organizers, and representing such non-offshorable sectors as retail, health care, trucking and hotels, would, in contrast to the AFL-CIO, devote all their energies to organizing.

After four years, what have the Change to Win unions proved? Chiefly, that the premise for the split was wrong (as was the split itself). Change to Win has devised some brilliant organizing campaigns of port truck drivers and warehouse workers, among others, but, like nearly every other private-sector unionization campaign during this period, these drives have yet to succeed. Which is why every union, no matter its federation, has prioritized the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would amend labor law to better enable private-sector workers to organize.

That the act stands a decent chance of passage (once amended to drop its controversial "card-check" provision, which would enable workers to bypass the election process to form a union) is in large part the result of one of John Sweeney's singular triumphs: the transformation of labor's political program into a powerhouse of American electoral politics. Under Sweeney, the AFL-CIO's political operation turned out more of the federation's members for Democratic candidates than it had in recent years. And when labor's dwindling numbers threatened to diminish the pool of potential Democratic voters, the AFL-CIO created its Working America program, in which key swing voters (chiefly, nonunion white workers) were recruited by canvassers into a union that didn't represent them on the job but that provided them with AFL-CIO political literature. There are now 3 million Working America members, chiefly in the industrial Midwest, which is one reason Barack Obama carried Ohio and Pennsylvania last year -- and one reason the Employee Free Choice Act may yet be passed.

Sweeney's other triumph was to reposition labor politically so that it stands at the center, and as the linchpin, of the American liberal coalition. Under the presidencies of Sweeney's predecessors George Meany and Lane Kirkland, Cold War obsessions often led the federation to view other liberal movements with suspicion and disdain. Sweeney reversed that course immediately, and a new generation of college activists -- anti-globalization, anti-sweat shop, environmentally conscious, pro-immigrant -- looked to unions again to advance their causes.

Rich Trumka, Sweeney's successor, will bring to labor a fiery eloquence that is light-years from Sweeney's sometimes-snoozy speechmaking. No, Sweeney didn't increase labor's numbers the way he might have initially hoped. But give Sweeney credit where credit is due: Under his leadership, the unions' political program became so adept that labor was punching well above its weight. Trumka's task, should the Employee Free Choice Act prevail, will be to pack more weight -- more members -- onto American labor's slimmed-down frame.

meyersonh@washpost.com

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