Granted, they are staying in the desert, at Bally’s Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. But all things considered, they’d rather be meeting in Washington with a Democratic president inviting some of them over to the White House and maybe a Lincoln Bedroom sleepover.
The AFL-CIO winter national meeting out west comes at a critical time for Sweeney and organized labor. Since their failed (and very expensive) attempt to elect a Democrat to the White House last November 2, Sweeney has been facing growing pressure to reform his coalition union movement, to heal some rifts left over from the bruising Democratic primary season that somewhat divided his union’s leadership, and to solidify his leadership role.
As leader, Sweeney clearly would like see his organization once again growing, instead of contracting, and to see his Democrats retake Congress and the White House. Instead, his ten-year track record reads, like, well, the Democrats’ success politically: the loss of millions of union members, in part because the AFL-CIO proved incapable of blocking passage of trade agreements with foreign countries and regions and state right-to-work laws.
To that end, last week Sweeney announced he was willing to support and implement a series of proposals that member unions have been agitating for. For example, for the first time, Sweeney indicated that he would be willing to support a rules change that would allow member unions to request and receive a rebate of AFL-CIO union dues if those funds were to be used to grow local membership. Sweeney also announced his willingness to consider rules changes that would encourage individual unions to organize and merge into sector-specific organizations, instead of continuing as smaller, independent entities within the AFL-CIO organization. Such larger sector unions would create greater influence for their membership. Sweeney, though, has not said he was willing to go as far as giving the AFL-CIO power to forcibly merge such unions.
Sweeney in the past has blocked such policy shifts, but his turnabout has little to do with evolving philosophy or a bolt from above. It has everything to do with power and keeping his ranks in line, and keeping rival Andrew Stern, president of the nation’s largest single labor organization, the 1.8 million member Service Employees International Union, within the AFL-CIO.
Stern has been threatening for weeks to take the SEIU out of the AFL-CIO if Sweeney and his minions did not focus on building up organized labor’s membership. “It’s no secret that organized labor is losing its standing and its relevance both within business and in politics,” says an SEIU lobbyist in Washington. “Andy and others within the AFL-CIO have been pushing for the union’s leadership to, first, acknowledge the problem, and then to do something about it. Sweeney’s recent public statements are a first step. But we have a long way to go.”
Even before the November electoral debacle, which saw organized labor pay out perhaps as much as $500 million for Democrats and the Democratic Party with nothing to show for it, Stern was viewed as a more serious political player within the Democratic Party than Sweeney. The last few months have done nothing to change that.
Stern remains close to the man he formerly backed for president, new DNC chairman Howie Dean, as well as both Democratic leaders in Congress, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reid. And his SEIU has strong ties with the Teamsters, another influential union that has been known in the past to go its own way.
The SEIU made huge commitments to Democrats in 2004 both financially ($60 million of its own money, not including whatever it put into the AFL-CIO’s pot for political use) and with manpower across the country. SEIU contingents were some of the largest working in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
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