- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2005

Labor’s love lost.

But the mood within the labor movement is not as lighthearted as Shakespeare’s comedy after Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, lost his bid for the presidency.

As the nation’s labor leaders gather tomorrow in Las Vegas for their annual winter meeting, they face a decline in membership, dissent within the labor movement and shrinking political clout.

Simmering below the surface is the future of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. With union leaders talking about reforms, there are rumblings that Mr. Sweeney, 70, a mild-mannered consensus builder who will run for a third term in July, should be replaced by a more progressive leader.

“Some hard choices have to be made. The discussion is going to be urgent and intense,” said Paul Clark, professor of labor relations at Pennsylvania State University.

Labor’s diminishing returns have been a long time in the making.

Since the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged in 1955, the percentage of the U.S. work force represented by unions has fallen from about 35 percent to 12.5 percent, or 13 million workers. Only about 8 percent of private-sector workers belong to unions.

To rejuvenate the stalled labor movement, the AFL-CIO’s 54-member executive council will examine numerous proposals, from forcing mergers to create bigger unions with more leverage to reducing the amount of money unions give to the federation.

“There is a lot that’s working,” Mr. Sweeney said. “But it hasn’t been enough. We realize that.”

Among the most radical proposals is one to cut the amount of money that unions pay to the AFL-CIO. That would leave the 58 unions in the labor federation with more money to devote to organizing efforts.

The plan, proposed by the Teamsters, calls for cutting in half union contributions to the AFL-CIO, provided unions spend at least 10 percent of their budgets on organizing. Reducing the annual per-capita tax to the AFL-CIO would boost member unions’ coffers by a combined $45 million a year.

“The debate is who is in the best position to organize workers,” said Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Mr. Sweeney supports reducing the amount of money member unions pay to the AFL-CIO, but said the federation must determine how much of a budget cut it can sustain.

Teamsters President James P. Hoffa has received support for his proposal from the Service Employees International Union, Unite Here, the union representing hotel, restaurant and apparel workers, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Fighting Wal-Mart is likely to be a linchpin of labor’s campaign to organize workers, but union leaders continue to debate how best to take on the retail behemoth and the nation’s largest employer.

Andrew L. Stern, president of 1.7-million-member SEIU, has proposed using $25 million in annual profits from purchases with AFL-CIO credit cards to fund a campaign to force Wal-Mart to increase wages and benefits.

Mr. Stern also proposes giving the AFL-CIO authority to require the merger of unions representing workers in the same industry to give them more leverage in contract negotiations with corporations.

Mr. Stern wants the AFL-CIO’s 58 unions to consolidate into about 20 megaunions and give each one jurisdiction in an industry so unions aren’t competing for workers who do the same job.

“That’s a lot more difficult to do than it is to say. These are people who have spent their entire careers rising to the top of their organizations,” Mr. Clark said.

Mr. Sweeney said the AFL-CIO can’t trample on the rights of its members by forcing mergers, but it can develop incentives that make mergers attractive. That includes helping unions finance costs associated with a merger, he said.

Mergers are becoming more common. Unite Here is the product of a 2004 merger. The United Steelworkers of America and PACE International Union announced a merger in January that will create the nation’s largest industrial labor union.

Mr. Stern, described alternately as progressive and a rabble-rouser, has drawn substantial attention to his proposals because of threats to pull out of the AFL-CIO if union leaders fail to make major reforms.

Others are advocating unity.

“No union or group of unions can afford to go it alone,” the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees wrote in its proposal.

Mr. Sweeney, who headed the SEIU before taking over the AFL-CIO and hired Mr. Stern in 1984 to run the organizing and field services program at the service employees union, also is preaching togetherness.

“Of course I want Andy to stay in the AFL-CIO,” he said.

The departure of the SEIU, which represents janitors and public-sector health care workers, would harm labor, Mr. Clark said.

“Schisms have happened in the past and they typically don’t make the labor movement stronger,” he said.

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