- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004


With organized labor in disarray, two unions have renewed threats to break from the AFL-CIO in a deepening feud over how to stem the erosion of membership and revive labor’s economic and political strength.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney on Wednesday tried to quell the simmering rancor by directing a committee of about two dozen union leaders to recommend changes and set a February vote by the federation’s executive council.

Calling the effort an “open discussion, a thorough discussion,” he said leaders would “be looking at how we can do an even better job with politics and organizing more members.” Mr. Sweeney is seeking re-election in July.

The move came after labor leaders met to review their turnout effort in Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s failed election bid. Unions represent just 12.9 percent of the work force. Union members accounted for 14 percent of the electorate in last week’s election.

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, repeated his threat to pull out of the AFL-CIO if leaders ignore the measures he proposed to shake up labor.

“We’d walk away and keep fighting” for workers without being “confined” by the federation to organize and strengthen unions, said Mr. Stern, who heads the largest of 60 unions under the AFL-CIO’s umbrella.

Frustrated with what he says have been numerous committees and studies under Mr. Sweeney’s direction, Mr. Stern has proposed 10 changes to the federation, including dramatically increasing the AFL-CIO’s power over its member unions. Mr. Stern said the AFL-CIO should be able to require coordinated bargaining, revoke union charters, prevent and grant mergers and transfer union responsibilities.

Mr. Stern is an outspoken union president who has angered other union leaders with his aggressive, public push for reform. As the leader of a faction clamoring for changes, he will play a big role in deciding who challenges Mr. Sweeney. Mr. Stern has said he will not seek the office. Mr. Sweeney won office on a platform of reform, and happens to be Mr. Stern’s predecessor at SEIU.

Mr. Stern’s aggressive effort ultimately may drive support to Mr. Sweeney.

Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists, repeated his union’s intent to leave the AFL-CIO if Mr. Stern’s plans are adopted, to “defend ourselves.”

Mr. Stern’s plans call for a realignment of unions based on industry sectors. That angers industrial unions, which are increasingly pursuing workers in other industries to grow, such as health care.

SEIU represents many health care workers.

Mr. Sweeney said the AFL-CIO already was doing some of what Mr. Stern suggested, including a national effort to take on Wal-Mart and to push for universal health care.

Mr. Stern shot back that those efforts should be greater than conducting research and creating task forces.

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