- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005

Opponents of embattled AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney yesterday proposed spending $60 million to organize new members and reverse its long slow decline.

The massive investment is nearly three times greater than the amount Mr. Sweeney proposed last month that the federation spend to recruit workers.

“Now is the time, maybe our last opportunity, to move the entire labor movement into a determined growth program. The current leadership of the AFL-CIO is calling for more of the same, and that won’t cut it,” said John Wilhelm, president of the hospitality division of the 430,000-member Unite-Here.

Mr. Wilhelm, a potential presidential opponent of Mr. Sweeney’s when the AFL-CIO holds its convention in July, floated the proposal with the Teamsters, Laborers’ International Union and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

United Food and Commercial Workers President Joseph Hansen said he will submit the reform proposal to the union’s executive board, which will decide whether to endorse the plan. But he said he supports reform and criticized Mr. Sweeney for failing to endorse significant changes.

Mr. Sweeney said the unions opposing him should work with him to strengthen the labor movement.

“The rhetoric of divisiveness should end. The only way to find solutions to meet these historic challenges is to do it together, with mutual support and a common, urgent commitment to change,” he said.

The new proposal yesterday is the first formal plan submitted by a group of Mr. Sweeney’s opponents known within the labor movement as the insurgents. They began a reform campaign before the federation’s executive committee meeting in March in Las Vegas, calling for radical change to boost labor’s clout.

Together, the insurgents represent about 5 million of the 13 million workers in the AFL-CIO’s 58 unions, not enough to unseat Mr. Sweeney or implement their own proposals.

They will lobby for support by sending the plan to each of the 27,000 union locals throughout the country. The insurgents also hope to get support from United Brotherhood of Carpenters Union President Douglas McCarron.

Mr. McCarron, whose union represents 520,000 workers, left the federation in 2001 over frustration with Mr. Sweeney’s policies. The insurgents are hoping to drag the carpenters into the campaign, and ultimately back into the federation, by getting Mr. McCarron to publicly support their reform agenda.

“I think now if Doug says he is prepared to rejoin the federation under new leadership, people would take it seriously,” SEIU President Andrew Stern said.

Mr. McCarron’s endorsement could help the insurgents gain support from some of the federation’s 15 building-trades unions.

Mr. Stern said the SEIU continues to support departing the AFL-CIO unless substantial changes are agreed to in July.

Under Mr. Sweeney’s plan, the AFL-CIO would spend $22.5 million on organizing, up $10 million from the last fiscal year. Mr. Sweeney wants to return $15 million to unions that recruit new members and make $7.5 million available to fund union drives at Wal-Mart and a handful of other employers.

The insurgent presidents want to invest $35 million on organizing efforts and devote another $25 million toward organizing workers at Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer.

The proposed $60 million investment in organizing represents about half of the federation’s fiscal 2004 budget of $124.6 million.

Dissension within the federation is the result of feuding over how best to reverse labor’s decline. The number of people in unions has fallen from 35 percent of the work force in 1955 to 12.5 percent, or 13 million workers, today. Only about 8 percent of private-sector workers are in unions.

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