- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

LAS VEGAS — A coalition of reformist unions yesterday said labor leaders aren’t making changes significant enough to help boost membership and reinvigorate the stalled labor movement, but they vowed to continue pressing for reform.

Although discussion of reform threatened to break apart the AFL-CIO, renegade labor leader Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said he will remain in the federation of 58 unions.

“I feel like I have a lot of company, and I like the company,” Mr. Stern said.

On the second day of their annual meeting to plot strategy, labor leaders yesterday approved a plan to return some of the dues paid by unions to the AFL-CIO to fund organizing efforts.

Debate over the future of the labor movement has revolved around how much money to devote to organizing and how much money the AFL-CIO’s vigorous political action campaign needs.

The union leaders continued to work out details yesterday, but a plan floated by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney would reduce union dues by $15 million annually. The plan also would increase the amount of money the federation of unions spends on political activity, from $32 million to $47 million.

“The figures are still in flux,” AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said.

Teamsters President James P. Hoffa had proposed cutting union dues to the AFL-CIO by 50 percent, but he mustered support from just nine of the 24 unions represented on the executive committee.

“The American labor movement can organize and empower workers even in this most difficult of climates if it marshals and deploys its resources effectively,” Mr. Hoffa said.

Mr. Hoffa was supported by major unions including the SEIU, Unite Here, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and the Laborers’ International Union of North America. That support represents about 40 percent of the nation’s 13 million union members, he said.

There are clearly two sides in the debate over the AFL-CIO’s spending. Mr. Sweeney has a strong ally in groups like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which supports the federation’s political activity.

“You won’t make real positive change unless you have investment in politics,” AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said.

Mr. Hoffa and Mr. Stern want more money spent on organizing, and they support returning much larger amounts of money to member unions than Mr. Sweeney endorsed.

But defeat of Mr. Hoffa’s proposal did not result in a complete fracture of the AFL-CIO.

Mr. Stern had vowed to take his massive union of 1.8 million janitors and health care workers out of the AFL-CIO unless labor leaders embraced vast reforms. The SEIU is the biggest and fastest-growing union in the federation.

Yesterday he showed no signs of leaving.

“What I want to do is restore the strength of labor, and we can’t do that by growing smaller,” he said.

Union leaders feel strongly that they are embracing a reformist agenda. Perhaps grudgingly, they credit Mr. Stern with forcing them to deal with difficult issues of reform.

The departure of the SEIU would have been the first major defection since the United Brotherhood of Carpenters quit in 2001 because union President Douglas McCarron disapproved of Mr. Sweeney’s policies.

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