November 11, 2004

Labor Vows to Consider Change, but Rebel Voices Discontent


WASHINGTON, Nov. 10 -The president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. announced Wednesday that organized labor, facing the second term of an administration it fought hard to beat in last week's election, would take up recommendations to reverse the movement's long decline, including perhaps a doubling of the amount spent on organizing.

The federation's president, John J. Sweeney, said the proposals would be put forth by a Committee of Change, formed Wednesday and authorized to present its ideas to the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s executive council for a vote in February.

But immediately after the nation's union leaders, meeting here, had created the committee, the president of the federation's largest union escalated his threat to break away unless substantial change was adopted to strengthen the movement.

"We need to either change the A.F.L.-C.I.O. or build something stronger that could really change workers' lives," said that official, Andrew L. Stern of the 1.6-million-member Service Employees International Union.

Mr. Stern said his preference would be to remain part of the federation, revived and more aggressive. But he acknowledged that the service employees had created a committee to study quitting the federation, which has 60 member unions representing 13 million workers.

For the first four hours of their one-day meeting Wednesday, the labor leaders analyzed Senator John Kerry's loss in the presidential race, but congratulated themselves on their vigorous efforts to elect him. Mr. Kerry spoke to them, praising them for those efforts and vowing to help strengthen the Democratic Party over the next four years.

Only in the last 10 minutes of the gathering did the union leaders address a 10-point plan that Mr. Stern issued on Tuesday calling for a vast overhaul of the movement. They put off debating what should be done to rejuvenate labor, instead creating the Committee for Change.

"There's a lot more we have to be doing," Mr. Sweeney, who heads the new committee, said afterward. "We have to be thick-skinned to take a hard look at ourselves - what's working and what's not working. There's no question we have to strengthen our organizing program."

When he was elected the federation's president in 1995, Mr. Sweeney vowed to increase organizing and to revive the movement. But organized labor has continued its slide, now representing 12.9 percent of the nation's workers, compared with nearly 35 percent a half-century ago.

"I was elected on a platform of change, and we made changes,'' Mr. Sweeney said, "but there is a lot more that we can do.''

At a news briefing after the meeting, Mr. Stern voiced exasperation that the participants had hardly discussed declining union membership and power in an era when wages are stagnant and many workers are losing health coverage and pensions.

"I was disappointed,'' he said, "that we missed another opportunity to have an honest and frank discussion of how unions need to change in order to make sure that we can impact workers.''

Asserting that labor faces a crisis, Mr. Stern has sought to become a catalyst for change; his union has even created an unusual Web site,, to make its case. But his maneuvering and threats have annoyed and angered many other labor leaders, some of whom say his threats of breaking away are undermining his efforts to win support for a broad overhaul.

Mr. Stern argues that the surest way for labor to improve workers' lives is to increase membership and to consolidate into fewer but bigger unions so as to contend more effectively with big corporations.

He has called for a $25-million-a-year campaign to unionize Wal-Mart, for setting ambitious goals on how much each union is to spend on organizing and for combining the current 60 unions into fewer than 20. In too many industries, he says, bargaining power is hurt because employees are represented by a dozen or more unions, splintered and often competing.

"In our country's history, the way workers have had the opportunity to change their life is by uniting their strength with other workers through strength in unions," Mr. Stern said Wednesday. "When the A.F.L.-C.I.O. was founded 50 years ago, one in three workers were in unions. Unions actually worked. When people talked about having a union job, it meant a good job," a job with good wages, health coverage and a pension.

As chairman of the Committee for Change, Mr. Sweeney said, he will seek consensus behind a variety of proposals. But he indicated that it might not be easy to reconcile Mr. Stern's push for an aggressive overhaul with the stance of labor leaders who want change to be only modest. Some union presidents would lose power under Mr. Stern's plan, since their unions would be merged into others.

"It will be my goal,'' Mr. Sweeney said, "to strive for a process that moves toward change but has support of all of the affiliates.''


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