Four years later, organized labor is still around, but Sweeney is looking more and more like a dodo bird. Late last week, Sweeney proposed a series of reforms designed — he said — to boost membership in unions and make them more politically active. They were also intended to satisfy a growing minority of AFL-CIO membership disenchanted with labor’s leadership, namely Sweeney.
The most closely watched proposal would have encouraged, but not required, each of the AFL-CIO’s unions to devote 30 percent of its dues to recruiting members, by way of a $20 million-plus national fund that Sweeney claimed would over time have generated more than $400 million from new membership. Sweeney also proposed a restructuring of the AFL-CIO’s coordinating committees, hoping that by giving some of the smaller unions a larger leadership role, inter-union infighting would be decreased.
The proposals were no visionary move by Sweeney. Rather, they were watered down versions of proposals put forward earlier this year by Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, and James Hoffa of the Teamsters. Both men were seeking mandatory dues payment for recruitment and political purposes, as well as requirements that all unions coordinate their political and organizing activities. And both men quickly stated that their unions, as well as others, would not support Sweeney’s proposals.
Stern, who was one of DNC Chairman Howard Dean’s big, early supporters during Dean’s presidential run, wants to see the AFL-CIO do for itself what Dean is promising the Democratic Party grassroots: more money at the bottom of the food chain to grow strong labor and political machines, and less of a centralized bureaucracy to direct them.
It now appears that at the very least Stern may challenge Sweeney, who is up for re-election in July. The fact that Sweeney was even looking at proposing reforms was viewed by many as an admission that he understood he was losing support. Some estimates inside the AFL-CIO are that Sweeney has perhaps 60% support of members, but possibly less.
“Stern is a far more popular figure inside the AFL-CIO, because he has grown his membership, been out front politically, and hasn’t toed the line with Sweeney,” says an AFL-CIO lobbyist. “It’s always easier for an outsider to create buzz, but leadership is a different matter for an organization this big. Some of us wonder if he’s up to it. He may just be suited to being a backbench agitator.”
Democratic Party officials have stayed out of the labor fight, but Dean clearly would be supportive of an AFL-CIO president Stern, if only because it would — if possible — more closely bind the two organizations.
Whoever is elected president of the big union in July, it will be smaller than it was just six months ago. Sweeney is looking at having to cut at least 25 percent of the union’s salaried employees in Washington, D.C., possibly more, to make up a budget deficit. Some of the staff are politicals held over from the 2004 election cycle.p>