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Struggle For The Soul Of The AFL-CIO


Tension was high when national union leaders gathered in Las Vegas last March for their annual winter meeting. A group of dissident unions had been hammering at AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney for months, criticizing his leadership and pushing for dramatic reform. Typically the labor chiefs at such gatherings maintain a polite, clubby veneer even when they disagree. But this time the lid blew. Jerry McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME), widely seen as the power behind Sweeney's throne, and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andy Stern, who heads the dissident faction, shouted and cursed each other. Each accused the other's union of poaching new members in a hard-fought campaign to sign up 50,000 Illinois child-care workers.

The moment spoke volumes about the internal battles dividing the labor movement. They began with Stern's attack on Sweeney. But as the showdown heads to a climax at the AFL-CIO's quadrennial convention from July 25-28 in Chicago, where Sweeney is up for re-election, the battle has morphed into a face-off between Stern and McEntee. In 1995, McEntee and Stern together played key roles in putting Sweeney into office. Now, McEntee and his top aides again are spearheading Sweeney's campaign -- only this time it's directed against Stern's attacks. Without McEntee's 1.4 million-member union, Sweeney's reelection effort would collapse.

Although McEntee has agreed over the years with a good part of Stern's criticisms, the two now are at loggerheads over several issues: their views on how to reverse labor's long-term membership slide, power within the AFL-CIO, and the institutional interests of their individual unions. They and other top labor leaders continue to search for a compromise. But barring a last-minute face-saving twist, it looks increasingly likely that Stern will quit the AFL-CIO.

He may be joined by some of the five unions with which he founded a new group called Change to Win Coalition, including the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW); UNITE HERE, the textile and hotel union; and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. If that happens, internecine warfare could rend the intertwined relations among many unions. "Right now I don't see any realistic possibility of a meaningful compromise," says John W. Wilhelm, the No. 2 official at UNITE HERE.

FUTURE VISION

Stern and McEntee clash in large part over a vision for labor's future. SEIU leader Stern, 54, an impatient former student activist, has focused relentlessly on expanding his 1.8 million-member union, making it the fastest-growing in the U.S. As he sees it, the union movement needs a new AFL-CIO president who will aggressively prod unions to organize new members, especially in the private sector (table).

McEntee, in contrast, believes the AFL-CIO should focus on bulking up labor's political muscle. The 70-year-old labor veteran's priority is reflected in the reform platform the AFL-CIO recently offered in response to Stern's attacks. McEntee would lift political spending to a third of the AFL-CIO's budget -- and leave organizing at only a quarter. This reflects, in part, McEntee's abiding interest in politics: For many years he has headed the AFL-CIO committee that sets labor's overall electoral strategy.

Putting politics first also meshes with McEntee's institutional interests as the head of the nation's largest public-sector union, where membership gains depend heavily on elected officials. AFSCME has signed up tens of thousands of new workers by getting governors to grant public workers the right to form unions. McEntee concedes that political muscle is key to his union's growth but argues that it's crucial to winning gains among private-sector workers, too. "Labor isn't going to have significant organizing until we're able to change people in political office and persuade them to change the nation's labor laws," he says.

The two leaders have been clashing for several years over both realms -- politics and organizing. In the heat of the political season in 2003, McEntee quit the board of an influential 527 political lobbying group Stern helped found and set up his own 527 -- risking a splintering of labor's influence in the high-stakes 2004 Presidential election. This year, in addition to the jurisdictional dispute over child-care workers in Illinois, AFSCME and the SEIU battled over Iowa child-care workers, too.

POWER AND EGO

In truth, the specific differences between the two men's visions aren't all that great. Stern's coalition would devote roughly $35 million to organizing by rebating federation dues to unions that significantly step up recruitment. Sweeney and McEntee have responded with their own rebate program. The bottom line: Only about $5 million separates the two sides on recruitment -- a pittance when split among dozens of unions. "It would be unconscionable for them to withdraw over such insignificant differences," says AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard L. Trumka, who's running for reelection on Sweeney's slate.

Nor do their political differences amount to much. Sweeney's proposals would give the AFSCME chief, in his role as top political strategist, nearly $40 million to play with in major elections. The challengers haven't specified how much they would shell out for electoral battles. But Stern clearly takes politics seriously: The SEIU alone spent more than $60 million in last year's election cycle, while AFSCME spent $42 million. Stern insists his differences with McEntee over priorities speak to labor's broader revival agenda. "Spending more on politics makes sense for public-sector unions, but labor needs a strategy for other parts of the economy, too," he says.

If the specifics aren't so divergent, what's all the feuding about? In part, it's power and ego. If Stern unseats Sweeney, McEntee stands to lose his long-held kingmaker role in the AFL-CIO. Sweeney's ego, too, plays into the drama. For years he vowed to retire when he turned 70 in 2004, but he felt dissed by Stern's attacks and dug in his heels. And Stern has put his reputation squarely on the line with his shakeup effort.

Still, the philosophical differences between the two power brokers do matter. McEntee believes labor can thrive only by maximizing its political strength, while Stern thinks unions must make a massive recruitment push even if they can't elect sympathetic public officials. It's true, as critics charge, that Stern himself has turned the SEIU into the country's largest union primarily by enrolling new public-sector members. The ambitious leader hasn't, they point out, mounted the kind of ground-floor challenge to private-sector employers that he calls for publicly. Even so, Stern insists that given the growing clout of global corporations, unions have no choice but to bulk up and adopt a private-sector growth strategy -- a tangibly different take than McEntee's politics-and-public-sector approach.

The situation has striking parallels with 1930s debates over organizing factory workers, who craft unions all but ignored. That led dissidents to start the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which eventually broke off from the American Federation of Labor. The two remained at odds until they finally merged, forming the AFL-CIO in 1955. Unless labor's chieftains find a way to reconcile, history may be about to repeat itself.

By Aaron Bernstein in Washington


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