The top leadership of the AFL-CIO decided yesterday to study proposals for a major restructuring of organized labor, including consolidation of the federation's 60 unions to as few as 20 and the initiation of a $25 million-a-year program to attack the Wal-Mart business model.
The decision, at a meeting of the nation's union leaders in Washington, comes at a time of enormous upheaval for organized labor. Union membership continues to decline, and labor suffered a major setback in the presidential election, after spending more than $100 million to try to defeat President Bush.
Several national labor leaders are calling for changes in the way individual unions operate and in the AFL-CIO's powers. Yesterday's decision was a response to that pressure. But the move fell short of the stronger commitment sought by Andrew L. Stern, president of the 1.7 million-member Service Employees International Union.
Stern, who runs the nation's largest union, has threatened to bolt from the federation unless tough initiatives to reverse organized labor's decline are adopted when the AFL-CIO executive council meets again in February.
AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, once closely allied with Stern, told reporters after the session: "It's premature to say what specific changes will be made." Sweeney described threats to leave the umbrella labor federation as "not too serious."
But Stern described yesterday's five-hour closed session as a recital of blaming "anybody but us" for the outcome of the presidential election, with "no discussion on substance whatsoever."
His proposals set off some in-fighting among top labor leaders.
"Putting 'new' between the words 'build' and 'strength' is not a strategy. It's the oldest marketing ploy in the book," said Rick Sloan, a spokesman for R. Thomas Buffenberger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, who is one of the harshest critics of Stern's reorganization proposals.
Stern has been publicly discussing who would support him if he decides to leave the AFL-CIO. He indicated he could count on Douglas J. McCarron, general president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, to back him if he withdrew from the federation. McCarron has left the AFL-CIO.
Organized labor has been on a steady slide since the mid-1950s, when one of three workers was a member of a union. The decline sharply accelerated during the Reagan administration, which broke the federal air traffic controllers union. Last year, only 12.9 percent of the workforce was organized.
Stern's union is one of the few that has made gains in membership in recent years. He has angered many of union presidents with his proposals and the publicity he has gained from making them. He has said he would not seek the AFL-CIO presidency. The consolidation of the federation Stern is seeking would mean that as many as 40 union presidents would lose their jobs.
To survive in the contemporary marketplace, Stern says, organized labor must follow the structural pattern set by its corporate adversaries: merge into large organizations with industry-wide jurisdiction, and become global by forming partnerships and alliances with unions around the world.
A costly but less controversial Stern proposal is to take the $25 million collected annually from the federation's Union Plus credit card program to finance a massive drive to organize Wal-Mart. "If this labor movement can't deal with Wal-Mart, we must be sleeping," Stern said.
Sweeney, 70, has announced plans to seek another term as president when the AFL-CIO meets next summer. "I think it's good that Andy has put so much thought into programs that he is recommending and supporting. . . . I accept all the changes Andy's recommending for discussion. . . . We have to change. There may be some differences of opinion about the degree of change."
Despite Sweeney's plans to seek reelection, speculation persists that he will not run. Should that happen, there are at least three likely candidates.
They are John W. Wilhelm, division president of UNITE HERE, the merged Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union; Richard L. Trumpka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO; and Terence M. O'Sullivan, general president of the Laborers' International Union.