March 3, 2005
Labor Leaders Reject Rival Plan to Shift More Money to
LAS VEGAS, March 2 - In a vote likely to create deeper
tensions inside the labor movement, the leaders of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
rejected a proposal on Wednesday to cut in half individual unions'
contributions to the federation to free up more money for organizing.
The 15-to-7 vote against the proposal put forward by five large unions
came during the federation's winter meeting here, which was taking
place under a threat by the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s largest union, the Service
Employees International Union, to leave the organization.
The unions backing the proposal vowed to continue fighting, saying they
hoped to secure a majority before the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s quadrennial
convention in July. Several also left open the possibility of a
leadership challenge to John J. Sweeney, the federation's president,
who has tried unsuccessfully to stem the erosion in organized labor's
On Tuesday, Mr. Sweeney proposed a cut of 17 percent, or $15 million,
in individual unions' contributions, money that the unions would then
use for organizing and match on a basis of four to one.
But the five unions argued that a 50 percent cut in contributions was
important to get unions to invest more in organizing, to shake up the
A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s bureaucracy and to demonstrate a commitment to
"The current debate is not about dollars," said James P. Hoffa,
president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. "It is about a
vision of the future of the American labor movement."
The Teamsters were the proposal's main sponsor, which was also backed
by the service employees, the food and commercial workers, the
laborers, and Unite Here, a union representing apparel, hotel and
restaurant workers. At the last minute, the United Auto Workers joined
At a news conference Andrew Stern, the service employees' president,
dodged the question of whether he might still withdraw his
1.7-million-member union from the federation. To improve living
standards for workers, Mr. Stern said, the labor movement needed to do
all it could to grow and to organize workers.
"What I want to do and what we all want to do," he said, "is restore
the strength of workers in our country, and we can't do it by growing
smaller. We have to grow stronger."
Unhappy with the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s bureaucracy and its failure to stop
unions from shrinking, Mr. Stern has threaten to secede and create a
new workers movement that he hopes would be a catalyst for revitalizing
labor. But his threats to withdraw in turn have angered many labor
leaders, who call him impulsive and divisive and assert that seceding
would hurt labor badly.
"Our greatest strength has always been our unity, our willingness to
stick together," said Richard Trumka, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s
secretary-treasurer. "I promise you one thing: If we stick together,
we'll get a solution and grow. If we get fragmented, every part of the
fragments will be weaker, and the big losers in that will be American
Mr. Stern and his allies have also called for measures to speed mergers
to create larger, stronger unions with clear lines of focus so they do
not undercut one other in organizing and negotiating. But his and the
Teamsters' proposal to cut contributions to the labor federation have
dominated the meeting here, partly because of fears that such a sharp
cut, coming to about $40 million a year, would force the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
to reduce its staff and its responsibilities.
Mr. Sweeney said he was all for more organizing, but he opposed the 50
percent cut, saying it would weaken the A.F.L.-C.I.O. far too much. He
argued it would be wisest for the federation to spend more on political
efforts, while individual unions financed organizing efforts, as they
have traditionally done.
"My hope is that we're going to be able to move changes that Andy will
feel are bold and meaningful," said Mr. Sweeney. "We're also hopeful
that we don't lose an affiliate, especially a major affiliate like
Mr. Stern has sought to turn the debate over a 50 percent cut into a
broader debate over how serious labor leaders are about change. Many of
his opponents say unions are already so embattled that it is foolish
for Mr. Stern to start a civil war over what percentage to cut
Mr. Sweeney said he was pushing through sweeping changes, among them a
large increase in political and legislative spending, to $45 million a
year, so the federation could have a permanent political presence in
many states and mount major campaigns simultaneously in national
elections and state elections.
A big question at this week's meeting is whether John Wilhelm, the
president of Unite Here's hotel and restaurant division, will declare
that he is running against Mr. Sweeney. On Wednesday, Mr. Wilhelm
hedged, saying labor's focus right now should be setting the
"The question about leadership elections should come after that, not
concurrent with it," he said.
Mr. Sweeney has said he has locked up enough support to ensure his
re-election to a four-year term.