BOSSES AT BALLY’S
It isn’t lost on some AFL-CIO union leaders that their president, John Sweeney, has led them into the desert after the union’s disastrous foray in the 2004 election cycle.
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.
Their failure to help John Kerry win, or to get additional Democrats elected to the House or Senate, has not diminished Stern’s standing.
Sweeney desperately does not want Stern to leave, if for no other reason than that Sweeney himself was once head of the SEIU. But Sweeney has an ally within the AFL-CIO executive board who wouldn’t mind seeing Stern jump ship: Gerald McEntee of AFSCME, a public employee union, and really the only union that has shown relative membership growth and stability.
McEntee, who saw his own star slightly diminished in the 2004 electoral cycle, would like nothing more than to see Stern take a few lumps in the coming months. The two have been rivals for years, as questions about who would take over for Sweeney began to be raised several years ago. McEntee and Stern refused to work together on 527 committees last summer, instead putting their union money into separate political operations.
“McEntee looks at the landscape and sees himself heading the AFL-CIO if Stern goes his own way and forms his own rival organization,” says an AFSCME regional organizer. “We look at the possibility of two large, national organizations and think that might not be a bad thing. There would be infighting, but it would also force both groups to focus on membership buildup, something the AFL-CIO hasn’t done in quite a while.”
Few AFL-CIO leaders buy into that theory. They see a Stern/Sweeney split as disastrous for organized labor in general and the AFL-CIO specifically. The only people who really seem to think it might not be a bad idea are Democrats. “Man, can you imagine playing one off the other?” says a DNC fundraiser. “That could be entertaining if not profitable for us.”
Recently Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona was back home for a fundraiser, headlining America’s Mayor, Rudy Giuliani. Kyl, who stood to take over the Senate Judiciary Committee on seniority grounds had current chairman Arlen Specter not been elected to the post by his fellow Republicans, was heartened by the level of support he received during the event from constituents and financial donors.
“People there knew that Specter was sick, and while no one wishes the worst in that kind of situation, people clearly felt this could be a sign that Kyl is in a position to really help the White House and the President’s judicial nominees,” says a Kyl donor who attended the event. “We want Jon’s profile to be raised a bit now.”
Specter, who is battling non-lymphoma Hodgkin’s disease, is said to be in a fighting spirit, but the treatment is taking a physical toll on him. Judiciary Committee press staffers were attempting to put him out for meetings and discussions with the press to allay rumors that Specter is weak and perhaps more ill than they had let on. Specter’s remarks certainly did nothing to help him. Instead of showing some support for the President and his agenda, Specter continued hammering away at how his party had failed to reach out to Democrats, and he again lectured the White House on its nominations philosophy.
“It’s getting to the point now, where Specter seems to be trying to call the leadership’s bluff,” says a staffer for a Republican Senator who does not serve on the committee, but who sought a seat this term. “We’re entering a critical time. If this is what Specter thinks is clarifying his position or building support among conservatives, he’s getting some bad advice.”
The growing doubts about Specter’s leadership could not be coming at a worse time for Republicans. According to a Judiciary Committee staffer, many who are directly involved in the nomination and confirmation process of judges have been told not to make plans for the summer months as there is expected to be a major confirmation battle.
“We’re expecting not only some fights over appeals court nominees, we’re expecting a Supreme Court nomination as well. That could take us into August,” says the committee staffer.
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