- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2005

If John J. Sweeney began the week concerned that he will be replaced as president of the AFL-CIO during the federation’s convention in July, it is likely he ended it with substantially more peace of mind.

Approval of his plan to put more money into labor’s political agenda coupled with the failed challenge from unions calling for greater investment in organizing efforts strengthened Mr. Sweeney’s bid for a third term as the federation’s leader.

“John Sweeney enhanced his chances of being re-elected,” said Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the 380,000-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and an avid supporter of Mr. Sweeney.

The 70-year-old head of the AFL-CIO said yesterday he isn’t taking the election for granted, despite his political victory here.

“I always run as if I’m in the toughest battle of my life. Nobody has told me they are going to run for any of the offices in the AFL-CIO, but we’ll look forward to any challengers we have,” Mr. Sweeney said on the final day of the federation’s annual winter meeting to plot strategy.

A group of unions headed by the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union lobbied hard for support of a plan to increase funding for organizing to boost membership. They want to return about $42 million in dues that unions pay to the AFL-CIO.

But it was Mr. Sweeney who received support for his own rebate proposal after slow and angry debate over three days.

Mr. Sweeney’s plan calls for returning $15 million to unions.

In addition, the AFL-CIO’s executive committee by a 14-8 vote approved Mr. Sweeney’s plan to increase spending on political activity from $32 million to $45 million annually. Mr. Sweeney and his supporters have said repeatedly that the federation must fund an aggressive political campaign because the AFL-CIO will stage a fight against privatization of Social Security and lobby Wal-Mart to boost wages and benefits.

“I certainly was not looking to win a vote, or several votes [on reform proposals]. It’s not really my goal to win votes, except my own election. I strive for solidarity,” Mr. Sweeney said.

Mr. Sweeney’s ability to garner support for his proposal and get the Teamsters plan defeated demonstrated his power, Mr. Buffenbarger said.

“When you have someone who can do that, you don’t just abandon him,” he said.

Once the coalition of unions including the Teamsters, SEIU, Unite Here, Laborers International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers failed to gain support for their rebate proposal, any challenge to Mr. Sweeney’s presidential bid dissolved.

John Wilhelm, president of the hospitality division of Unite Here, is widely viewed as a potential challenger to Mr. Sweeney. But he distanced himself this week from a presidential bid.

Mr. Wilhelm said the reform coalition of five unions first must try to persuade other labor groups to support their proposal to invest more money in efforts to organize workers.

“The question about leadership elections should come after that,” he said. Union members will elect their next president at the July convention.

The coalition yesterday remained critical of Mr. Sweeney’s agenda.

“This group believes we must change the Washington bureaucracy and not simply keep doing the same old political program, expecting to get a different result in an economy that every day rewards work less and less and where our biggest problem is we have less and less workers in unions,” SEIU President Andrew Stern said.

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.

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