AFL-CIO President Proposes Shake-Up

Times Staff Writer

Hoping to blunt criticism from dissidents in the labor movement, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney on Thursday proposed pouring additional funding into organizing and politics.

The federation would pay for it by laying off as many as one-fourth of its 420 staff members and eliminating some departments, he said.

Described by a close Sweeney ally as “the most major change inside the federation of labor since it was created 50 years ago,” the plan wasn’t enough to satisfy the presidents of five major unions that have openly challenged Sweeney’s leadership.

Shortly after the AFL-CIO leader touted his plans in a conference call with reporters, the five presidents -- from the Teamsters, the Laborers, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Service Employees International Union and textile and hospitality union Unite Here -- complained of “many unanswered questions” and called for more complete budget numbers.

John Wilhelm, president of the hospitality division for Unite Here and rumored to be a candidate for Sweeney’s job, went further. He said the proposal “is verbally embracing the call for change without changing anything. That’s the style of this administration.”


The federation represents about 13 million members in 57 affiliated unions. About 2.2 million are in California.

Union leaders have been bickering for months about the direction of the AFL-CIO, which has suffered declining membership and influence despite a series of initiatives introduced during Sweeney’s 10-year tenure. He plans to run for reelection in July.

Once the voice for more than one-third of private sector employees, the federation now has 7.9% of non-government workers on its membership rolls and has been shut out of most public policy debates. Much of the blame lies with economic shifts -- the global movement of jobs and labor has hurt unions around the world. But critics say Sweeney has not been aggressive enough in countering those trends.

Now, questions of financial mismanagement also are being raised. Some claim the federation’s bureaucracy and spending have grown dramatically under Sweeney’s leadership, draining reserves. A document obtained from one of the five unions claimed that internal audits show that under Sweeney “the AFL-CIO has spent itself into the ground” even as its income has grown, mainly through commissions on union credit cards.

Federation spokeswoman Denise Mitchell denied any money problems. She said that the reserves were intentionally spent down to fund major initiatives and that the federation’s budget was healthy. “There’s no sense of financial crisis here,” she said.

The 26-page document released by Sweeney on Thursday, posted on the federation’s website, would increase the federation’s organizing fund by $10 million, to $22.5 million. About $15 million of that would be in dues rebates to national unions with strategic organizing plans. The majority of funding for organizing drives would still come from the unions themselves.

Sweeney also would add $7.5 million to political efforts, mainly educating union members about issues and mobilizing them to vote. That would still leave politics with nearly twice as much funding as organizing would receive. Critics would like to see the priorities reversed.

Sweeney would not discuss the layoffs or name the departments slated for closure, saying he needed to meet with employees first. “We haven’t made all the decisions,” he added. “We are looking at every department and program of the AFL-CIO.”

The tension is likely to grow as the federation’s convention approaches in July. Meanwhile, groups that go up against unions are watching with interest.

“You can see both sides, but it’s a problem for the unions when they fight so much among each other,” said Scott D. Carmichael, vice president of Labor Relations Institute Inc., a consulting service that helps businesses fight union organizing drives. “From talking to peers in my circle, we figure we’ve got eight to 10 years of a career left. After that, we’d better retire because we won’t have anything left to do.”