- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2005

CHICAGO — When AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney waltzed to re-election yesterday, it was the first time all week he had no opponent.

For two days, Mr. Sweeney was upstaged by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andrew Stern, his former protege, and Teamsters President James P. Hoffa and their plans to leave the labor federation.

Yesterday the 71-year-old patriarch of organized labor stood on a massive stage before more than 1,000 frenzied supporters basking in the spotlight, not sharing it.

“Despite the conflicts and even the divisions we’ve suffered, I think we all feel a new sense of clarity about our mission and new energy propelling us toward our goal,” Mr. Sweeney said after his nomination.

But defections by two of the labor movement’s biggest unions could complicate efforts to reach that goal.

Mr. Sweeney will preside over a smaller, poorer and more fractured labor movement than the one he led just a week ago.

“I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes,” said Mike Milliman, vice president of the Orange County, Calif., Central Labor Council.

Labor leaders are sorting out the ramifications of the decision by the Teamsters and SEIU to defect, but their departure will affect funding and could weaken the labor movement politically if an organizing war between AFL-CIO unions and the insurgents diverts money that could be spent funding the campaigns of sympathetic political candidates.

The decision by SEIU and Teamsters will result in a loss to the federation of $18 million annually in union dues.

“The political role of the AFL-CIO is compromised anytime a union leaves because they are coordinating the activity of fewer unions and doing it with fewer resources,” said Richard Hurd, labor relations professor at Cornell University.

The federation will face another setback if Unite Here, a union representing hotel and restaurant workers, and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International pull out of the AFL-CIO.

An exit by the UFCW, the union most likely to sever ties with the federation, would result in the loss of an estimated $8 million in dues.

Labor leaders scrambled yesterday to eliminate the potential for a shortfall, raising dues 4 cents, from 61 cents per member to 65 cents.

It was a swift response intended to help state labor federations and central labor councils, which are responsible for much of the grass-roots political efforts by unions.

“This was not done by accident. We wanted to make it clear that we will do what we need to make sure those unions have the resources they need,” International Association of Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger said.

Mr. Sweeney’s supporters rallied around him yesterday, saying he has not been weakened by the defections.

“This is a challenge, but we’ve all faced challenges. They did not cut the legs out from under him,” said International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers President Thomas Buffenbarger.

But the impact on Mr. Sweeney may not be immediately clear.

“Whether he is stronger or weaker because of this, we’ll know as time goes by. He certainly would have come out of this strengthened had he been able to keep the other unions in the federation,” Mr. Hurd said.

Mr. Sweeney will boost his standing and prevent further erosion of the federation’s influence if he can prevent Unite Here and the UFCW from leaving, Mr. Hurd said.

The Laborers and United Farm Workers are the only members of the newly formed Change to Win Coalition that have pledged to remain in the AFL-CIO.

Mr. Buffenbarger said that while Mr. Sweeney was not weakened by the dissension that dominated the convention, he was affected.

“He’s hurt because his union betrayed him,” he said.

Mr. Sweeney headed the SEIU before Mr. Stern.

Mr. Stern made it clear this week that he thinks Mr. Sweeney’s approach to running the federation — he employs a consensus-building style and shuns making podium-pounding demands — is partly responsible for the long, steady decline of labor.

Mr. Stern supports forced mergers between unions so there are fewer, bigger labor groups.

American Federation of Teachers President Ed McElroy said Mr. Sweeney’s approach is among his strengths.

“John is not big on bluster, rhetoric or stealing the limelight. He’s a man of substance,” said Mr. McElroy, who did not support Mr. Sweeney during his first candidacy for president in 1995.

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