- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney yesterday offered to discuss with dissident labor unions increasing funds for organizing as he announced his unopposed candidacy for re-election.

Mr. Sweeney said for the first time that he will negotiate with the coalition of five labor unions that last week created the Change to Win Coalition. He also said he would consider increasing investment in organizing efforts, a shrewd tactic that could prevent the unions from leaving the federation.

“The proposal we made is evolving,” he said during a speech announcing his plans to run for a fourth term. “It is not a final document.”

Otherwise, he attacked the faction of union leaders who want to unseat him but don’t have the votes to remove him from office.

“No person leads alone, and no one leader’s ideas are worth the price of labor’s solidarity. ‘My way or the highway’ is not a strategy for change. It is a formula for division,” Mr. Sweeney said at the modest campaign kickoff at the union headquarters of the Communications Workers of America.

Mr. Sweeney directed his comments at five unions: the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), United Food and Commercial Workers, Unite Here, Teamsters and the Laborers, among the fastest-growing unions in the federation. Leaders of these unions argue that Mr. Sweeney invests too much money in political activity and too little in efforts to add new members.

Four of the five unions have threatened to leave the federation of 58 unions and 13 million workers if Mr. Sweeney is re-elected next month, raising the stakes in an increasingly bitter fight over who is best-suited to lead the AFL-CIO and reverse its decline.

“The AFL-CIO officers’ approach is a status quo unity that will simply reinforce the trajectory of the last 10 years — declining union membership, fewer worker protections and an enhanced political assault on working people at the federal, state and local levels,” the leaders of the five unions said.

Mr. Sweeney, a 71-year-old New York native, made a fiery campaign speech surrounded by a group of labor leaders representing about 63 percent of the AFL-CIO’s membership.

“I stand in no man’s shadow when it comes to fighting for workers’ rights and leading the movement for change. The fight to win bargaining rights for workers has been my life’s work, and I have no intention of backing down because the fight is getting tougher,” he said.

Despite the criticism, Mr. Sweeney has no challengers and appears likely to win re-election, said Paul Clark, professor of labor studies and industrial relations at Pennsylvania State University.

“The sense around the labor movement is that if nothing changes between now and the convention that he will win and win handily,” he said.

The five unions opposing Mr. Sweeney continue to press for greater investment in organizing activity. They argue that the AFL-CIO should spend $60 million to boost union membership; Mr. Sweeney has proposed spending $22.5 million.

Last week, the SEIU, United Food and Commercial Workers, Unite Here, Teamsters and Laborers formed the Change to Win Coalition to spearhead their joint efforts to boost membership.

Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Mr. Sweeney has little room to increase the budget for organizing activity. Even if it prevents the coalition from leaving the AFL-CIO, spending more of the federation’s budget to organize workers may be imprudent because it could lead to more layoffs, he said.

The AFL-CIO last month eliminated 106 of its 420 positions when it shifted resources from political activity to organizing efforts.

Mr. Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO in 1995. He has served a two-year term followed by two four-year terms. His legacy has been success in building an efficient political arm, but he has had difficulty adding union members, Mr. Clark said.

“There’s not a whole to show for it, but I don’t know if anyone else could have done better,” he said.

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