- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

LAS VEGAS — Labor leaders will make privatization of Social Security their key political issue this year.

“Nothing would be a bigger blow to working people than the privatization of Social Security,” AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said yesterday on the first day of the annual winter meeting of labor leaders.

Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said his union already has spent $1 million to lobby against President Bush’s proposal to privatize Social Security.

AFSCME, which represents 1.4 million people, has made phone calls to 2 million people in 13 states urging them to oppose privatization, Mr. McEntee said.

While they develop plans for their political campaign, labor leaders also are using a series of closed-door meetings at a Las Vegas hotel to discuss strategies to reform the stalled labor movement. About 13 million workers are union members. That represents 12.5 percent of all workers, down from 35 percent 50 years ago.

A strengthened labor movement will boost the Democratic Party, said Howard Dean, newly appointed chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

“We are in this together,” he said. “It is in both of our interests to work together.” Reform talks are plodding along, but a range of union officials said the talks are productive.

They also downplayed rumors that meetings included friction among union officials.

“I see a lot of ideas being exchanged,” United Steelworkers of America President Leo Gerard said.

Talk of reform has been driven largely by Andrew Stern, president of the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union. Mr. Stern has threatened to leave the federation unless a series of reforms are put in place to invigorate the labor movement.

A report issued by the AFL-CIO yesterday indicates overall union membership declined 168,000 in 2004, compared with a year earlier.

A proposal to return a percentage of union dues paid to the AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization representing 58 unions, is among the most prominent on the list of potential reforms.

The Teamsters proposed in December that half of union dues paid to the federation be returned, provided unions spend at least 10 percent of their budgets on organizing.

On the opening day of the labor meeting, unions weren’t unanimous in their support of the Teamsters plan.

“I don’t see a consensus emerging around 50 percent,” said Paul Booth, executive assistant to Mr. McEntee.

Under the Teamsters plan, the AFL-CIO would return a combined $42 million to its member unions to fund organizing efforts.

Even though unions need all the money they can find to recruit new members, a $42 million rebate simply isn’t enough to make a difference, said Larry Cohen, executive vice president of the Communications Workers of America.

Mr. Sweeney is building support for his own proposal to return dues to the 58 unions in the federation to help bolster efforts to organize workers.

Mr. Sweeney’s plan likely will return less money to unions than the Teamsters plan, but he repeatedly declined to discuss how much money the federation should rebate.

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