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May 31, 2005
 A Summer of Discontent for Labor Focuses on Its Leader's Fitness for 
 His Job


WASHINGTON, May 27 - At 71, after nearly half a century in the union 
movement and after a decade leading the nation's main labor federation, 
John J. Sweeney is facing his toughest time ever.

The percentage of American workers belonging to unions continues to 
fall, President Bush is seeking to weaken collective bargaining rights 
for 700,000 federal workers, and many unionized companies are cutting 
back once-unassailable benefits, like health insurance and pensions.

But for Mr. Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the biggest battle 
may be a nasty internal struggle - the federation's largest union, the 
Service Employees International Union, is threatening to secede if, as 
many expect, Mr. Sweeney wins a new four-year term this summer. And 
several other major unions have hinted that they, too, might leave the 
A.F.L.-C.I.O., a federation of 57 unions and 13 million workers.

"We need to make far-reaching changes and have a leader committed to 
such changes, and that leader is not John Sweeney," said Andrew L. 
Stern, president of the service employees union, which has more than 1.7 
million members.

Mr. Stern seeks to push Mr. Sweeney into retirement, but Mr. Sweeney is 
digging in - and is voicing anger with Mr. Stern, a one-time protégé, 
saying his divisiveness is weakening the movement.

But Mr. Stern's critique of Mr. Sweeney has strong support from four 
other unions - the Teamsters, the laborers, the food and commercial 
workers, and Unite Here, which represents hotel, restaurant and apparel 
workers. The five dissident unions represent more than a third of the 
membership of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of 
Industrial Organizations.

With such unrest, many union leaders agree that the labor movement is at 
a crossroads: one path might lead to disastrous division and hasten 
labor's decline, while the other might lead to a revival.

Mr. Sweeney's simple response to his critics is: "I believe I'm the 
right person to lead the changes we need."

What has split organized labor into pro- and anti-Sweeney camps is a 
debate over the best direction for labor and who would be best to lead 
the movement and reverse its decline. Mr. Sweeney's opponents say that 
he is tired and not charismatic or forceful enough. They also say he has 
not gotten labor to put nearly enough money and energy into rebuilding 
its membership rolls through organizing campaigns; the percentage of 
private-sector workers in unions has plunged to 7.9 percent from 35 
percent in the 1950's.

Despite the criticism, Mr. Sweeney is favored to win re-election. No 
challenger has emerged, and his backers say he has the support of more 
than 70 percent of the delegates to the federation's convention in July. 
Mr. Sweeney received a major lift on Thursday, when the United Auto 
Workers - which has given some backing to Mr. Stern's criticisms - 
endorsed the incumbent.

That endorsement, union leaders say, makes it less likely that John W. 
Wilhelm, who heads the hotel and restaurant division of Unite Here, will 
make good on a threat to run. Mr. Sweeney has faced opposition only 
once, in 1995, when he was first elected to a two-year term; since then 
he has won two four-year-terms.

"It looks like I have the votes," Mr. Sweeney said in an interview on 
Friday. "Like any election, I run as if it's the toughest election of my 

But Mr. Sweeney's opponents still hope to press him to step aside.

"John's style of leadership is consensus building, but the labor 
movement in 2005 doesn't need consensus - it needs dramatic change to 
grow," said Bruce Raynor, who is the overall president of Unite Here and 
an ally of Mr. Stern's. "John can win vote-wise, but do you count that 
as a win? If you win and drive the labor movement apart, that's not a win."

Usually soft-spoken, Mr. Sweeney can be gruff with critics, business 
leaders and conservative politicians, giving speeches characterized by 
fiery words but a flat, unexciting style. He has dedicated his life to 
the labor movement, often telling audiences how he, as a boy in the 
Bronx, attended union meetings with his father, a bus driver.

He rose to become president of New York's largest union of doormen and 
janitors, then became president of the Service Employees International 
Union - and he admits to feeling pained that the union he once headed is 
threatening to secede.

Adding personal drama to the feud, Mr. Sweeney was long Mr. Stern's 
mentor when Mr. Sweeney led the service employees union and Mr. Stern 
was its organizing director. Mr. Sweeney hired Mr. Stern, attracted by 
his vision, forcefulness and impatience - his blow-through-the-obstacles 
streak. Now Mr. Stern is using those traits to undercut him.

"I've long been an admirer of Andy's," Mr. Sweeney said. "But I really 
resent this attitude, that 'if I have differences and I don't get my own 
way, I'm leaving the federation.' "

In June, Mr. Stern's executive board is expected to give him a green 
light to quit the A.F.L.-C.I.O. if he chooses. Such a walkout, 
especially if other unions join in, would badly hurt the federation, 
costing it more than 10 percent of its dues money, creating a public 
relations disaster and probably resulting in unions raiding each other's 

Mr. Stern, whose union has added 600,000 workers in the past decade, has 
repeatedly said that if the A.F.L.-C.I.O. does not embrace enough 
change, he will seek to build something better, presumably an 
organization outside the federation that would seek to attract workers 
and sympathetic young people.
Frustrated that the number of workers in unions has fallen while overall 
employment has grown, Mr. Stern faults Mr. Sweeney for not getting labor 
leaders to spend far more on organizing and for doing too little to get 
small unions to merge to form larger, stronger ones.

Mr. Sweeney thought he had met Mr. Stern more than halfway last month 
when he announced a platform encouraging union mergers and pressing 
unions to spend more on recruiting nonunion workers. Mr. Sweeney and his 
backers seem puzzled and angry that Mr. Stern still appears intent on 

Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County 
and Municipal Employees, said Mr. Sweeney was the man to unite labor and 
push it forward.

"He's an excellent leader, a man of vision," Mr. McEntee said. "Facing 
Bush, the Supreme Court, the House and the Senate being in the hands of 
what I would consider right-wing conservatives, we need a united labor 
movement now more than ever. I'm truly concerned that some unions might 
leave. We can't be as strong as a federation with them gone. Nor can 
they be as strong if they leave."

Even many Sweeney critics praise him for transforming the federation's 
political arm into a formidable lobbying and election machine; it is 
often viewed as the Democrats' leading get-out-the-vote operation. Mr. 
Sweeney's backers praise him for getting 20 unions to become more 
aggressive in organizing workers, though Mr. Stern questions why it took 
so long and insists there is still far too little organizing.

Indeed, Mr. Stern and his allies have hammered Mr. Sweeney for not 
backing their proposal to spend $60 million - half the federation's 
budget - on organizing and on giving rebates to individual unions to 
organize. Mr. Sweeney, who proposed spending $22.5 million on such 
efforts, said devoting half the federation's budget to unionizing would 
prevent it from fulfilling its responsibilities in politics, collective 
bargaining and other areas. He said the budgetary changes Mr. Stern 
proposed would force him to lay off 100 staff members, after he already 
laid off 100 of the federation's staff of 420.

Mr. Sweeney's backers say that the federation's spending $60 million 
instead of $22.5 million on unionizing would not make a big difference 
since individual unions spend more than $300 million a year on organizing.

Mr. Sweeney said that the decline in union membership was not his fault. 
"We've gone through some horrible times, losing close to three million 
manufacturing jobs just during the Bush years, and many of them were 
good, middle-income, good-benefit union jobs," he said. "We haven't done 
enough organizing to keep up with those job losses."

In explaining his decision to run again, Mr. Sweeney talked of growing 
up in a home where three things were paramount: family, faith and his 
father's union. He spoke as if he was on a mission and discussed past 
divisions that were ultimately healed, as when the United Auto Workers 
quit the federation in a dispute over the Vietnam War.

Mr. Sweeney said he still hoped to keep the service employees in the 
fold. "It's a worry that any affiliate would think of seceding," he 
said. "But I will do my damnedest to try to avoid that."

Some labor experts called it an inopportune time for infighting. "Given 
that labor's on the defensive, a split right now would really hurt 
them," said Richard Hurd, a labor relations professor at Cornell 
University. "If labor comes out of this bitterly divided and the 
aftermath is internecine warfare, where unions go after each other, then 
it only plays into the hands of the enemies of labor."

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