The Note: The Boy Looking for the Pony

Members are likely to consider a proposal circulated yesterday to AFL-CIO union political directors that would fix the two-year budget for the labor group's political activities first and then consider changes in how much money the labor umbrella group takes from its members.

That sounds arcane, but it is perhaps the most newsworthy happening of the winter meeting so far because it serves as a surrogate for a much larger debate.

If the measure gains support, it would stall efforts by unions like the Teamsters, SEIU and the Laborers to rebate up to 50 percent of the money given to the AFL-CIO back to member unions for organizing. And that would slow down the labor group's crawl to change its ways, which many unions admit is necessary and, to borrow a Las Vegas phrase, in the cards regardless of what happens this week. (The actual "s—t" gets done at the AFL-CIO's conference in July, when unions' votes are weighted by the size of their membership, which is not the case at this meeting.)

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney circulated a plan to rebate a small portion of the money the labor federation gets, which one of his aides said would free up as much as $15 million for organizing. Not surprisingly, all three participants in an AFL-CIO sponsored-press conference about organizing said they opposed proposals to rebate 50 percent of dues. And Gerald McEntee, the AFL-CIO's outspoken political chair, claimed that labor's effort to defeat President Bush's Social Security proposals would have been complicated had the union begun to rebate dues two years ago. McEntee wants union reform efforts devoted to politics and legislative action. He supports other ways to expand organizing.

The union that has among the most success in organizing over the past few years and who spent the most on politics is the dissident SEIU, and it was not represented at the press conferences Tuesday. The SEIU and other unions want a larger rebate -- as much as 50 percent -- which they say would give unions $50 million to organize workers. SEIU and its allies say that labor should prioritize growth; without a larger national presence, it's going to be difficult to elect labor-friendly politicians to office, they argue.

Smaller unions seemed to like Sweeney's proposal because most of them rely on the big AFL-CIO bureaucracy in Washington for much of their political and legislative activities. Most of the bigger unions who support a much larger dues rebate have their own political program, their own legislative affairs shop, their own strategic planners, and don't need the AFL-CIO to help them.

So that was Tuesday.

On Monday, per the New York Times' Steven Greenhouse, "Tensions grew so fierce . . . that [SEIU President Andy] Stern swore at Mr. McEntee at a committee meeting when they were arguing about which union should organize 45,000 child-care workers in the Midwest." LINK

Be sure to read Greenhouse's primer in full, which includes Andy Stern's somewhat pessimistic blog entry.

(We witnessed Stern and McEntee heartily shake hands later that night, for what it's worth.)

DNC Chairman Howard Dean addressed the executive committee in the morning and by all accounts did not make news. He stressed his now-familiar promises to strengthen state Democratic parties and said he wants to improve ties between state parties and state labor councils.

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