The Note: A Bee to a Crying Face

The New York Sun reported Tuesday that the presidents of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the American Federation of Teachers, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and several other unions met privately Monday to calm what these presidents see as heated rhetoric from both sides that threatens to impede change.

Two senior officials from participating unions said the group wants to work with both sides to resolve the long-standing dispute, but won't form an alliance to jointly accept or reject specific proposals. "It was about how to put the genie back in the bottle and not letting things go too far," one of the officials said. "So far as we're concerned, there is only one announced candidate, and that's John Sweeney."

Joe Hansen of the UFCW, who has voted with Stern in the past on overhaul proposals, is viewed as pivotal. He refrained from sign on to a plan proffered Monday by Stern, Hoffa, Laborers president Terence O'Sullivan, UniteHere's John Wilhelm, and Bruce Raynor, though he released a statement praising it. Hansen had joined the four union unions at a press conference in Las Vegas two months ago.

Hansen's presence at the Monday meeting of Sweeney allies and his favorable gestures to Sweeney's opponents has signaled to all factions in the debate that he is being prudent about putting the weight of his union behind any particular faction.

Stern and others have reached out to Doug McCarron, the iconoclastic president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, who took his union out of the AFL-CIO in 2000 after disputes with Sweeney over the direction of the labor federation and the role of its building trades unions. Sweeney responded by ordering that state labor federations under the AFL-CIO's aegis prevent the Carpenters' locals from retaining their membership. Sweeney opponents and building trades unions defeated that move, and fostered mistrust among the latter group. A shaky truce in 2002 led McCarron to formally rejoin the Building Construction and Trade Department (BCTD), an office with considerable power under the AFL-CIO's constitution.

More recently, Sweeney said the BCTD will cut all ties to the Carpenters unless they rejoin the AFL-CIO by the end of July, which could affect McCarron's relationship with the Heavy & Highway committee, an outside group of AFL-CIO unions that helps the transportation industry deal effectively with crafts that work on major highway, dam and rail projects.

Sweeney's vow to oust the Carpenters from participating in the labor federation's programs is the subject of debate among the building and construction trades' 15 affiliated unions, according to labor officials. Some unions support Sweeney's decision to enforce the AFL-CIO constitution. Others, even as they express frustration with the Carpenters, worry about the decision's effect on major construction and highway projects involving many unions working together. A few see it as an implied threat to Stern.

The Laborers' O'Sullivan has taken the lead in talking to McCarron about what would happen if the Carpenters were ousted from the BCTD. Those discussions have focused mainly on how the unions would interact with contractors.

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