[Marxism] More on AFL-CIO Reorganization

Jon Flanders jonflanders at jflan.net
Wed May 11 13:13:14 MDT 2005

At Teamsters Conference, Dissidents Warn of Death of Labor Movement

BY JOSH GERSTEIN - Staff Reporter of the Sun
May 10, 2005


LAS VEGAS - Addressing a Teamsters conference here yesterday, five chiefs of
major labor unions urgently called for sweeping reforms to the country's
largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, and dismissed as woefully inadequate
the restructuring plan put forward by the labor group's president, John

In a series of salty and at times profane speeches to hundreds of Teamsters
officials and organizers from across the country, the dissident labor chiefs
warned that the labor movement is approaching irrelevancy.

"I honestly believe it, and I'm ashamed to say it: The labor movement is on
life support," the president of the Laborers, Terence O'Sullivan, said.

"We are at a crossroads as a movement and as a country. I believe that
without dramatic, far-reaching, and radical change, the American labor
movement will become insignificant in the lives of American working
families," Mr. O'Sullivan said. "It's gut check time."

In March, five of America's largest and healthiest unions - the Laborers,
the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, the United Food
and Commercial Workers, and a hotel, restaurant, and laundry workers' union,
Unite Here - endorsed a plan to allow unions to withhold or get back half of
their per capita dues from the federation if the funds were used for
organizing campaigns. The dissident unions also proposed that the AFL-CIO
sharply cut the size of its operation, perhaps by half or more.

That reform proposal was rejected after Mr. Sweeney promised his own
restructuring plan, including $15 million in new rebates for organizing.
Last week, the first jolts from that plan were felt in Washington, D.C., as
a third of the workers at AFL-CIO headquarters learned they were losing
their jobs.

However, the dissident union chiefs, who represent about 40% of the 12.5
million workers in the labor federation, made clear yesterday that they do
not believe Mr. Sweeney has gone far enough. A man considered a possible
challenger to Mr. Sweeney at the AFL-CIO convention in July, John Wilhelm of
Unite Here, delivered a stem-winder that sounded a lot like a campaign

"The American labor movement at the level of the AFL-CIO has lost its way.
They've lost this vision. It's lost its energy. It's lost its hope. And
that's a crime," Mr. Wilhelm shouted yesterday. "Too much of the leadership
of the labor movement in this country - the so-called leadership - thinks
that we have to accept the fact that workers in this country are in
trouble.... We aren't going to accept it. You're not going to accept it.
None of these unions are going to accept it. And we're going to teach the
AFL-CIO that they shouldn't accept it either."

Mr. Wilhelm has declined to comment on the reports that he may challenge Mr.
Sweeney, 71, who has served in the AFL-CIO's top slot for more than a

The president of the Service Employees union, Andrew Stern, challenged Mr.
Sweeney by name. "John Sweeney and the AFL-CIO need to understand: We're not
going to grow stronger if our numbers grow smaller," he said.

Efforts to reach an AFL-CIO spokeswoman for comment were unsuccessful.

The other union chiefs at the "Unity" conference were guests of the
Teamsters president, James Hoffa Jr.

During the rally in a hotel ballroom, Teamsters repeatedly broke out into
chants of "HOF-FA, HOF-FA!" as the labor leaders paid tribute to the
Teamsters' boss. However, they grew quiet and even gasped as Mr. Stern
showed a PowerPoint-type presentation that dramatized labor's retreat from a
national power to a movement that is significant only a few states.

At its height in the 1960s, about 30% of workers were unionized. That
statistic has dropped, he said, and to day as low as 7.8% of the private
sector is unionized.

"That's the problem in the labor movement. That's what John Sweeney doesn't
get. That's what those other unions don't get," Mr. Stern said. He also
complained that there are simply too many unions and that the divisions
allow businesses to pit one union against another.

"This is not organized labor. This is disorganized labor," Mr. Stern said.
"Unions are undercutting each other."

That message certainly resonated with the Teamsters.

"There are bottom-feeding unions around like the Machinists that are out
there trying to steal our members from the Teamsters, with lower, sweetheart
contracts," Mr. Hoffa said. "It's time for the AFL-CIO to stand up and do
what's right and adjudicate these things so we protect good wages and we
make sure that these other people don't come around and steal our jobs."

Asked about the bitter comment, a spokesman for the Machinists, Richard
Sloan, said only, "In all of these matters you have to consider the source."

The rivalries among unions are affecting the dispute over Mr. Sweeney's
future. The Machinists have been some of his most loyal allies, while the
Teamsters recently decided to thrown in their lot with outspoken reformers
like Mr. Stern.

Mr. Hoffa did not address a possible challenge to Mr. Sweeney. However, the
Teamsters chief said his union is not satisfied with the current
restructuring plan.

"We're going to fight at the convention in July for what's right," Mr. Hoffa

Mr. Stern reiterated an earlier threat to leave the AFL-CIO if serious
reforms aren't implemented.

"It is so long overdue that we either change this AFL-CIO or we build
something stronger that really can change workers lives. That's what we're
all going to do together," the Service Employees president said.

The other labor leaders did not endorse Mr. Stern's threat, though Mr.
O'Sullivan predicted that a number of unions would quit if the AFL-CIO did
not address a perception of "apathy" at the top.

Several of the labor leaders also complained that the AFL-CIO is too
beholden to Democrats.

"How can it be that the political program of the AFL-CIO has become captured
by the Democratic Party?" Mr. Wilhelm asked. "I'm sure we'll endorsed
Democrats most of the time if they do the right thing for working people.
But the America labor movement should not be a captive of any party."

The general president of Unite Here, Bruce Raynor, said workers have gotten
little relief from the federal government under Presidents Clinton or Bush.
"American working people took it on the chin through both administrations,"
Mr. Raynor said.

In one of Mr. Stern's feistier moments, he declared, "If unions think that
the labor movement can allow this to happen, they can kiss my a-."

That and some other off-color remarks prompted Mr. O'Sullivan to say he was
in need of his parish priest. "I think I need to go to confession after
what's going on up here," he quipped.

In another religious allusion, Mr. O'Sullivan said, "Where the hell is Moses
when you need him? I mean parting the Red Sea is nothing compared to the
challenges that we face as a movement."

In an interview, the president of a New York Teamsters local, Timothy Lynch,
said the labor movement needs to talk more about the basic human rights and
human needs of individual workers. He said the speeches didn't delve into
those issues in enough depth.

They're very passionate and critical," Mr. Lynch said of the dissident union
chiefs. "Passion alone is definitely not going to get the job done."

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