The AFL-CIO has failed to keep up with the changing workplace and must be radically reinvigorated -- or replaced -- if the labor movement is to survive, the president of the nation's largest union said yesterday.
A loose federation of 13 million union workers, the AFL-CIO wields little control over the 65 individual unions that are its members and has not been effective at creating a single, powerful voice for American organized labor, Andrew L. Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), told a national convention of his union in San Francisco.
"Our employers have changed, our industries have changed and the world has certainly changed, but the labor movement's structure and culture have sadly stayed the same." Union activists must "either transform the AFL-CIO or build something stronger that can really change workers' lives," Stern said.
The AFL-CIO's loose structure "divides workers' strength. . . . It has no enforceable standards to stop a union from conspiring with employers to keep another stronger union out or from negotiating contracts with lower pay and standards."
Stern's speech was an unusual public display of displeasure with the labor federation. Although he gave voice to a frustration some labor leaders feel privately, many of those leaders were upset yesterday that Stern spoke so forcefully just months before the presidential election. Union leaders have been lining up behind Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and want to show no sign of weakness in the campaign.
Bruce Raynor, president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), said, "The American labor movement is in a crisis and American workers are in a crisis," but the debate over the AFL-CIO "should best be handled post the November elections. All our efforts should be focused on the defeat of George Bush."
Stern is perhaps the most outspoken member of the New Unity Partnership, an alliance of SEIU, the Laborers' International Union of North America, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, UNITE and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. All but the Carpenters are AFL-CIO members. The partnership has repeatedly warned that declining union membership threatens the viability of organized labor, especially in the private sector, which has seen a steady decline in union workers.
Stern, who aides said is not considering abandoning the AFL-CIO, noted that when the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged in 1955, more than one in three U.S. workers was a union member. Over the past 49 years, that has declined to one in eight for the entire labor force, and one in 12 for the private sector.
Stern also called for setting aside $1 million of SEIU money to finance an effort to organize Wal-Mart. Along with other labor union leaders, he believes that the Wal-Mart business model -- low wages, relatively few benefits and downward pricing pressure on suppliers -- poses the most serious threat to organized labor in the private sector.
Union strategists are exploring the possibility of funneling $10 million to $30 million a year through the AFL-CIO to finance an unprecedented multi-union drive to organize workers at Wal-Mart facilities.
Stern went out of his way yesterday to avoid directly criticizing John J. Sweeney, who had preceded Stern as SEIU president and who is now AFL-CIO president.
"John Sweeney, a good man who devoted his life to our union, tried to breathe new life into the AFL-CIO. But John Sweeney has proven that the problem is not who captains the ship but that the ship was not built to navigate the storms of the modern world," Stern told SEIU delegates.
Stern has said that he is not a candidate to replace Sweeney, who will be up for reelection in 2005.
Sweeney's spokeswoman, Denise Mitchell, and some of Stern's allies in the unity partnership said the issues Stern has raised should be addressed, but after the Nov. 2 general election.