[Marxism] Crisis deepens in AFL-CIO

Jon Flanders jonflanders at jflan.net
Fri May 6 14:25:49 MDT 2005

Another take on the AFL-CIO reorg, with more context - for the
Solidarity list:

Cuts and Fissures
The AFL-CIO announces mass layoffs, while both its critics and
supporters argue among themselves.

By Harold Meyerson

The American Prospect Online www.prospect.org  Web Exclusive: 05.05.05

“Yesterday was a motherfucker,” one AFL-CIO staffer commented this
Wednesday, referring to Tuesday’s announcements that the federation
would eliminate 167 of the AFL-CIO’s 426 positions (61 new positions
will also be created). And in a bitterly divided labor movement, that
sentiment might be one of the few statements on which all sides can

It’s a season of blood and knives -- and still, some cautious hope -- 
within American labor. Under pressure from its critics within labor to
bolster its political and organizing programs, the administration of
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney on Tuesday unveiled the most
far-reaching restructuring in decades. For leaders of the coalition of
dissident unions, however, the change in program is not enough: They
want a change at the top of the AFL-CIO as well. “They’re trying to
co-opt as much of our program as possible,” one prominent critic said
Wednesday morning, “but it’s the same old team.”

“John Sweeney and the people around him are not capable of carrying
through the reforms,” UNITE-HERE General President Bruce Raynor told
the Prospect last week.

But the possibility of a challenge to the 71-year-old Sweeney, who has
declared that he will run for another term at the AFL-CIO’s convention
in Chicago this July, is itself unresolved as presidents of the
dissident unions prepare to meet next week in Las Vegas. John Wilhelm,
president of the hospitality division of UNITE-HERE, has been
considering a run for office, but as yet has no assurance from Andy
Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU),
that Stern’s union, the federation’s largest, will stay inside the
AFL-CIO even if Wilhelm is elected. (At the SEIU’s convention last
summer, Stern vowed to reform the AFL-CIO or “build something better”
outside it.)

Inasmuch as one basis of a Wilhelm candidacy is that his election would
keep all the dissident unions within the fold (and bring one union
that’s already left, the Carpenters, back in), and because Wilhelm
would certainly need the assistance of the SEIU in reforming the
AFL-CIO along the lines that the coalition has spelled out, the SEIU’s
indecision has posed an obstacle to a Wilhelm candidacy.

The restructuring that Sweeney laid out on Tuesday is a direct response
to the drumbeat of criticism that the dissident union leaders (and some
supportive ones as well) have been leveling at Sweeney’s
administration. For years, Wilhelm, for one, has argued that with labor
in a steady and sickening decline, the AFL-CIO needs to shuck some of
its less essential functions and spend 75 percent of its budget on
politics and organizing. Exact budget numbers remain hard to come by (a
bone of contention not only among Sweeney’s critics but among some of
his allies), but with Tuesday’s changes, the new federation budget
looks to be approaching Wilhelm’s target.

The biggest changes have occurred in politics and organizing. The
AFL-CIO’s Field Mobilization Department -- a somewhat nebulously
defined division that employed a large number of staffers for a range
of disparate assignments across the nation -- has been abolished. New
positions, however, are being created in the federation’s political
“member mobilization” program, with the goal of expanding labor’s
six-months-out-of-every-two-years get-out-the-vote program into a
fulltime political operation in key states.

On organizing, the federation has budgeted $15 million in dues rebates
to those unions that satisfy as-yet-unwritten AFL-CIO criteria for
“serious” organizing -- chiefly, that an affiliate make a major
financial commitment of its own to organizing campaigns in its core
industry. The Organizing Institute, which has offered
organizer-training programs since the early ’90s, is being reshaped to
focus more on training existing union staff and members rather than
young people who want to go into union building as a career.

As well, the federation is establishing a number of Industry
Coordinating Committees, which affiliates will be required to join, to
help coordinate both bargaining and organizing within specific
industries -- a change that’s long overdue as unions confront employers
as hostile and formidable as Wal-Mart. The federation’s Strategic
Campaigns Department is being brought into Organizing to staff these
committees, though how much power these committees will actually have
is by no means clear.

Leaders of the dissident unions complain that despite these changes,
the money that the federation is putting into organizing still falls
short of the money it’s putting into politics, and add that the powers
of the new industry committees need to be spelled out more clearly to
foster clearer commitments to organizing. Wilhelm notes that one
proposal that the dissenting unions have backed -- devoting royalties
from the AFL-CIO’s credit card to a unified campaign to organize
Wal-Mart -- has not been embraced by the federation.

Still, a longstanding demand of Wilhelm and his associates -- that the
work of all federation departments be devoted more to fostering
organizing and political clout -- seems to have been addressed by this
week’s restructuring. The federation’s International Affairs Department
(which, during the tenure of Cold Warriors George Meany and Lane
Kirkland at times had a budget exceeding that of all other federation
programs combined) has been abolished, with its director, Barbara
Shailor, and presumably some of its staffers reassigned to the
Solidarity Center. The shift means that the foreign-affairs operation
of the AFL-CIO is likely to be more focused on the spread and
preservation of unions involved in global campaigns, at home and
abroad. In another consolidation, the federation’s legislative, health
and safety, and policy operations have been combined into one.

“Every department had some cuts,” says Denise Mitchell, assistant to
Sweeney for public affairs. “It’s an effort to move resources into
politics and organizing” -- and at the end of this process, says
another federation official, “we have a structure much better able to
do both.”

The process itself, of course, was a contentious one. “This is miles
from where we were when we came out of Vegas,” said one federation
insider. At the federation’s early March executive-council meeting in
Vegas, a pro-Sweeney coalition representing roughly 60 percent of the
federation’s membership defeated a proposal from the dissident unions
to rebate more funding to affiliates for organizing, passing instead a
resolution that increased the political budget. Since then, though,
Sweeney has been trying to move in the dissidents’ direction, concerned
that the SEIU, and perhaps UNITE-HERE and the Teamsters, might leave
the federation altogether.

“After Vegas,” the federation insider continued, “it took a minute for
everybody around Sweeney to realize that we were going to have to make
a huge restructuring effort and do a lot of things very differently. If
this had happened two years ago, the NUPsters [an abbreviation for the
dissident unions when they were allied in the now disbanded New Unity
Partnership] would have applauded.”

Today, the onetime NUPsters are withholding their cheers until and
unless there’s a new president at the AFL-CIO. But this endeavor has
been complicated by the SEIU’s growing sense of exceptionalism, which
is causing rifts not only with its adversaries in labor but with its
allies as well. At one level, that sense of exceptionalism is
understandable: While most unions have struggled to stay afloat, the
SEIU has grown by close to 750,000 new members since Stern became
president in 1996. In the past month alone, it has picked up 90,000 new
members in two mega-organizing campaigns (among child-care workers in
Illinois and home-care workers in Michigan).

Stern has long insisted that merely changing presidents at the
federation won't be enough. “You need both a program and a leader
committed to make a program work,” he told the Prospect in April. “You
can’t have just one. Sweeney was the candidate of change [when he ran
for the federation presidency in 1995], and he hit a brick wall three
or four years ago.”

Part of the problem is that Wilhelm, or any candidate of change, cannot
assemble a majority at the AFL-CIO’s convention without the support of
unions that are not entirely committed to the SEIU’s agenda of change.
The SEIU, for instance, favors restricting union’s organizing campaigns
to their core industries -- a prescription that the United Auto Workers
(UAW), which has tried to augment its shrinking numbers in the auto
industry by organizing teaching assistants on university campuses,
might well view as a death sentence. In Vegas, UAW President Ron
Gettlefinger sided with Stern, Wilhelm, and Teamster President James P.
Hoffa on Hoffa’s proposal to create the rebate for organizing. He’s
hardly likely, however, to agree to a labor restructuring that condemns
his union to go down with General Motors and Ford.

The SEIU’s indecision is one of many reasons why the current split in
labor is a good deal murkier than the split of 1935. Then, frustrated
by the refusal of the American Federation of Labor to sanction the
organization of industrial workers, Mine Workers President John L.
Lewis sought out his chief antagonist on the floor of the convention,
Carpenters President “Big Bill” Hutchinson, decked him with one punch
(a mark of Lewis’ tactical genius: the 300-pound Hutchinson was the
only union leader bigger than Lewis), and, taking Clothing Workers
President Sidney Hillman, stormed out of the convention to form the
Committee for Industrial Organization. Seventy years later, Stern seems
uncertain whether to deck a latter-day Hutchinson (say, American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Gerald
McEntee, who’s led the pro-Sweeney forces) or the new-age Hillman
(Wilhelm, his own ally).

And it’s not just the dissident side that has its tensions. Last
Friday, April 29, Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger, who
sided with the Sweeney forces in Vegas, sent a blistering letter to
Sweeney announcing his resignation as the chairman of the federation’s
Public Affairs Committee. The previous day, Sweeney had held a press
conference announcing some of the restructuring changes, “without so
much as even mentioning anything about it to me,” Schaitberger wrote,
though he and Sweeney had met just two days before. “If you don’t see
fit to bring me in, or at least simply inform me, as your chair, that
you are going to conduct a major media event announcing critical
proposal regarding the Federation, then I have to question your
sincerity and commitment” to the AFL-CIO’s committee structure,
Schaitberger wrote.

Schaitberger’s concerns may seem less than cosmic. They matter insofar
as there are Sweeney allies who are unhappy with Sweeney’s management
of federation affairs; he needs to keep all the allies he can between
now and the July convention.

As for morale at the federation, several sources on Wednesday described
it, understandably enough, as “rock bottom.” Inside the AFL-CIO, and
among both its supporters and critics, there don’t seem to be a lot of
happy campers.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect’s editor-at-large.

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