Head of Big Service-Workers Union Weighs Separation From AFL-CIO

Times Staff Writer

Fifty years after it was formed by a merger of two powerful factions of labor unions, the AFL-CIO is on the brink of a historic split. If there’s any single person to blame, or praise, for what happens next, it’s an intense Ivy League graduate with a penchant for purple, the unifying color of the 1.8-million-member Service Employees International Union.

SEIU President Andrew Stern set the maelstrom in motion in November as labor leaders were still licking their wounds from a costly failure to help elect Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) as president.

Stern said the federation of 60 unions was dying of inertia, and threatened to pull out unless it changed dramatically -- among other things, by dropping nearly all other activities in favor of organizing new members and forcing smaller, ineffective unions to consolidate into 15 stronger mega-unions.


As head of the AFL-CIO’s largest and fastest-growing union, Stern could not be ignored, although many found his style imperious. His ideas, modified, are now supported by the presidents of four major unions: Unite Here, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Laborers International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers. Together with the SEIU, they represent a 40% block of votes in the AFL-CIO.

Along with structural change, the dissidents are calling for new leadership. The federation’s top officers stand for reelection in July.

Stern’s detractors are furious. Some claim he is driven by ego and hurting labor solidarity at a time when unions are under siege from many quarters. They say AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney has done all he can in a tough political and economic environment, and they back him for a third term. During Sweeney’s 10 years at the helm, union membership continued to decline, slipping below 8% of the private-sector workforce.

The election in Chicago ultimately will be controlled by the presidents of a few dozen large unions. Lacking a majority, the dissidents haven’t put forward a candidate of their own, although John Wilhelm, a co-president of Unite Here, has often been mentioned as a possibility.

Thursday morning, the United Auto Workers voted to back Sweeney. The incumbent claimed that gave him more than the 50% needed to win reelection.

Hours later, in an interview at The Times, Stern spoke in the strongest terms yet of quitting the federation, pondering who would join him and what might come next. The following are excerpts:

Question: How do you see things shaping up between now and the end of July?

Answer: I think we’re headed for a split in the labor movement. We have a philosophical difference. It’s not about John Wilhelm or John Sweeney. It’s not simply about organizing or politics. It’s about, do we share common ideas about how to grow stronger? ... It’s hard to bridge philosophical differences. It’s easy to bridge financial differences.


Q: How will the split happen?

A: I’m not sure how. I think the question is, will there be a second federation that is formed? How many people could be part of it? I think if there is, it will be a much more limited federation. It’s not going to try to be a huge Washington bureaucracy. I think it would be focused much more on growth. How do we help each other grow stronger?


Q: Why wait? Why not do it now?

A: Facts matter. As things get closer to a deadline where people have to make choices, you learn more and more. I’d say what we’re learning is there’s a big philosophical difference.

People would like to make a political deal. Maybe we could put $3 million more here, maybe John Sweeney could be president for X number of years and someone could succeed him. As opposed to saying, OK, how are we going to actually deal with this profound question: How are we going to be relevant in the 21st century? What do we need to do? We’re sort of back to something like making legislation -- let’s make a deal.

For us, the deal has to be: Are we going to change our members’ lives? Can we be relevant, strong enough and successful enough in the 21st century, and not, do I get John Sweeney for two years and then John Wilhelm? It’s much more about, do we have a way to win?


Q: You represent about 40% of union members in California. This could have a big effect here.

A: It depends on how people treat it. We think the [Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO] has done an incredible job here in California. [Secretary-Treasurer Miguel Contreras, who died May 6] showed that people can work together. There’s no reason that shouldn’t continue. There’s no reason the state federation shouldn’t allow people, and maybe even let the [California Teachers Assn.] and the carpenters and other people not in the AFL-CIO participate.

But all we can do is offer, and if people want to say, “Well, you’re not in our club, therefore we’re going to hurt our members by separating ourselves and not working together,” I think that would be foolish. But it wouldn’t be the first foolish thing we’ve done in the labor movement.


Q: Since you kicked off this discussion in November, it’s shrunk down to talk about how much money to devote to organizing versus politics. It seems to have become personality-driven. Are you disappointed?

A: We used to operate more like the Politburo, people would go behind closed doors, and then someone would come out and announce something had happened. The good news is we’re beginning to have a conversation more and more outside of the leaders in Washington.

I’m glad there’s been discussion. I think the discussion is too small. It’s too much about, “Is it this John or that John?,” “Is it organizing or politics?,” and not about how much the world has changed and how important the labor movement is, to try to be a relevant part of this moment of history. Because we do have a product that works, that redistributes wealth a little more fairly. And yet it keeps getting reduced to some simple concepts, a lot because I think people don’t really want to change.

We’re living through this profound change [in the economy]. We should accept it. No one knows the answer. People thought they had the answer with high tech. People thought the answer was trade. None of it’s worked to distribute wealth. Wages in 2003 were flat again for 95% of all Americans. Healthcare has eaten up whatever raises most people get. We have profound problems, and we don’t have any answers. I think we need to shape a new policy and the labor movement has to be part of it. It may not be the answer to it, but certainly for lots of workers, it’s a huge piece of the puzzle.


Q: What’s next? What happens after July?

A: For our union, there are three challenges. One is to continue to build a global union. We thought we had made a big step forward because we put someone to work in Geneva. Now we have people working in Australia, in London, South Africa. We hope to have people in South America soon. We’re about to have a second meeting of a group of unions to talk about launching a couple of different global campaigns. So we are well on our way to try to do what’s never been done: to try to figure out how to have a global union or global campaigning. That’s been interesting and very fast.

Two, I think we’ll be part of sponsoring a public discussion about what are the ideas about rewarding work. I think there are plenty out there. And then the next thing will be, how do we make sure political parties adopt those ideas? Because in the end, you change things when leaders and laws either facilitate tax breaks for the rich or facilitate rewarding work.

So we’re looking for those ideas and looking for to how to use the power of persuasion to make them happen.