November 10, 2004
Largest Union Issues Call for Major Changes
As the nation's union leaders gather today in Washington the labor movement is in turmoil, with the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s largest union hinting that it might pull out of the labor federation and some labor leaders saying that John J. Sweeney may face a challenge for its presidency.
In a sign of the jockeying and soul-searching, Andrew L. Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s largest union, called yesterday in a letter for far-reaching changes in labor designed to increase its membership, proposing a $25-million-a-year campaign to unionize Wal-Mart and a near doubling in the amount spent annually on organizing.
The meeting comes as long-simmering differences in the
A.F.L.-C.I.O. have been intensified by
"The labor movement was really shaken by the election and they're also badly divided," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor relations professor at Cornell University.
Unions are also feeling a sense of crisis, largely because the percentage of workers in unions has plunged to 13 percent from nearly 35 percent in the 1950's and because corporations are cutting back health benefits and pensions.
In recent months, Mr. Stern, whose union, with 1.6 million members, is the nation's fastest growing, has warned that the service employees might break away from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. - a federation of 60 unions and 13 million workers - unless the federation embraces major changes to reverse labor's decline.
Mr. Stern said in his letter to the 54 members of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s Executive Council that President Bush's victory had intensified the need for change. "When only 13 percent of the American work force is in unions, our ability to win national elections is limited,'' he said. And he said he wanted a vote on proposals for change before the president's inauguration in January, instead of at the labor convention in July. Mr. Stern's call for broad restructuring has fueled fierce divisions, even causing one union, the International Association of Machinists, to warn that it might quit the A.F.L.-C.I.O. if Mr. Stern prevails in his push to remake the federation.
Adding to the tensions, some labor leaders say that a close ally of Mr. Stern, John W. Wilhelm, the longtime president of the hotel workers' union, might challenge Mr. Sweeney, who is up for re-election next year.
In an interview, Mr. Wilhelm declined to say whether he would run against Mr. Sweeney, who says he will seek a new four-year term at the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s convention in July.
"We have to do things much differently in the labor movement because of all the challenges that we face," Mr. Wilhelm said. "Organized labor right now is obviously in trouble because we continue to decline as a percent of the work force."
Mr. Sweeney, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s president, called today's meeting to discuss proposals to reshape the union movement and to assess labor's political efforts this fall.
He, too, sent a letter to labor leaders yesterday, saying that unions needed to reshape their movement "to better take on corporate America and win power for working families in today's economy." He added, "We should be big enough to discuss our different positions with respect for each other and without restoring to an 'us against them' stance."
Mr. Stern's proposals would amount to a thoroughgoing restructuring of labor.
In his letter he called for consolidating the federation's 60 unions, perhaps to less than 20, saying that many unions are too small to grapple with giant corporations.
"Since the founding of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. nearly 50 years ago, our employers have changed, our industries have changed, technology has changed, and the global economy has changed," Mr. Stern said.
"The labor movement has not kept pace with these changes. Today, workers and their families are paying the price," he said.
Complaining that workers are often hurt when 10 or more unions represent workers in a single industry, Mr. Stern called for giving the A.F.L.-C.I.O. power to bar a union from negotiating a contract that undercuts the wages and benefits that unions in the same industry have already negotiated.
At his union's convention last June, Mr. Stern said the A.F.L.-C.I.O., in order to be more effective in helping workers, needed power to hold unions accountable - to make sure they organize more workers and do not undercut one another. At that convention, he warned, "We either transform the A.F.L.-C.I.O. or build something stronger together," language his aides said suggested that he might break off from the federation to begin a more aggressive, growth-oriented federation.
As part of an effort to make $2 billion available for unionizing efforts over the next five years, Mr. Stern called yesterday for giving half the dues that member unions pay the A.F.L.-C.I.O. back to the unions so they would have more money available for organizing.
He also proposed using the $25 million in royalties that the A.F.L.-C.I.O. gets each year from its Union Plus credit card to organize Wal-Mart, the nation's largest corporation.
"The Wal-Mart business model of providing low wages and few benefits, shifting jobs overseas to exploit workers under poverty conditions and viciously opposing workers' freedom to form unions is setting a pattern that undermines good jobs for all working people at home and abroad," Mr. Stern wrote.
Wal-Mart officials say that their workers receive competitive wages and benefits, that Wal-Mart is not opposed to unions and that conditions are humane in the overseas factories that produce many of the goods it sells.
Mr. Sweeney, who came to power in 1995 promising to rejuvenate the movement, said he welcomed many of Mr. Stern's proposals, including his call to have unions back national health care reform and have unions back a campaign to pressure employers not to interfere in organizing drives. He said the was already carrying out some of these proposals
"I look forward to discussing these and a range of ideas that aim to strengthen the voice of working people," Mr. Sweeney wrote.
Richard Sloan, a spokesman for the machinists' union, criticized Mr. Stern's proposals, asserting that they were part of a power play in which Mr. Stern and his allies were seeking to take over the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
"It's not Andy Stern's role in life to say to 60 other international unions that you got to do it my way or the highway," Mr. Sloan said. "That's just dead wrong. There's an arrogance to that. He fails by misunderstanding the nature of the labor movement - this isn't a set of elites that dictates to us. This is a democratic movement."
At their convention in September, the machinists' delegates authorized the union's executive council to withdraw from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. if its political opponents won control of the federation.