AFL-CIO President John Sweeney on Wednesday beat back efforts by dissident union leaders to reduce the labor federation's power and divert resources to organize new workers.
At a four-hour meeting of the AFL-CIO's executive committee, a majority of union presidents there supported proposals by Sweeney to wed the priorities of organizing new workers to a significant expansion of the AFL-CIO's politics budget, and they defeated a rival proposal to rebate up to fifty percent of dues unions pay to the AFL-CIO.
"This is the right way to go," said Gerald McEntee, the president of the AFSCME union and a top backer of Sweeney's.
The victory for Sweeney, who is running for re-election, brought into public a cleft that has divided the House of Labor in the past year.
For the first time, five union presidents representing about 40 percent of the nation's organized workforce sat together in front of the press and rebuked the executive committee for their vote, vowing to lobby fellow union presidents and between now and the AFL-CIO's annual conference in July. And they said that the battle to reform the labor movement, which has hemorrhaged members for decades, is being played on terrain they created.
Andrew Stern, the president of AFL-CIO's largest union, the SEIU, had threatened to take his 1.7 million members out of the federation unless fellow union presidents agreed to devote substantial resources to organizing new workers and to restructure its priorities.
But yesterday, alongside several allies, including James P. Hoffa, the Teamsters' president, Bruce Raynor, who heads the UNITEHERE union, Terry O'Sullivan, the president of an industrial union, and Joe Hansen, who leads the main food and commercial workers union, Stern said his crusade to reorient American labor had gained significant support since he first went public with his dissatisfaction and that he planned, for the time being, to work within the AFL-CIO to change it.
"I'm a lot less lonely these days," he said.
Sweeney's supporters contend that the dissident unions are motivated by a desire to oust him from office and to replace him with one of their own, such as John Wilhelm of UNITE-HERE. (Wilhelm said yesterday it was premature to talk about a challenge to Sweeney, although he has told friends that he is weighing a run.)
Other observers, including several top AFL-CIO officials, say that while many union presidents are sympathetic to the proposals of Stern, Hoffa and others, Stern's behavior since introducing them has alienated potential allies. They complain that Stern has waged his campaign in the media and is not interested in compromise.
One of Stern's aides acknowledged that Stern was a divisive figure but said that "what these guys don't understand is that for Andy, it's not about Andy, it's really about his workers."
It is tempting to see the cleavages as the result of a fight between service unions and industrial unions, or between big unions and small unions, or simply as a battle royal featuring enormous union egos. But the dispute pits two of the biggest unions, AFSCME and the American Federation of Teachers, against two others: the Teamsters and the SEIU.
Both AFSCME and AFT have depended on government largess for their growth and both are among the unions most closely allied with the Democratic Party.