The Blog


12:00 AM, Oct 21, 1996 • By MATT LABASH
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A Year ago, John Sweeney swept away the forces of Lane Kirkland to become president of the AFL-CIO. His triumph was hailed in the media as reinvigorating the labor movement with a breath of go-go progressive air.

Sweeney soon announced the change of a decadesold ritual, the winter executive-council meeting (known by union wags as "the beaching of the whales" ). This is where labor bosses with pocked slabs of fat cushioning what used to be their obliques smoke fine cigars under Bal Harbour cabanas, displaying to the average $ 30,000-a-year pipefitter how fiscally responsible they are with his membership dues. The image-conscious Sweeney decided that no longer would the meeting be held at the four-star, $ 250-plusa-night Bal Harbour Sheraton; instead, it would be held at the four-star, $ 200-plus-a-night Regal Biltmore in Los Angeles. (Although the Paris apartment and the corporate jet have stayed.)

Furthermore, Sweeney would beef up the federation's organizing apparatus with a $ 20 million budget, ten times the previous amount. And "Union Summer" interns would stalk the field with real organizers, getting a taste of strikes, recruitment -- even violence.

In Watsonville, California, strawberry workers balked at an aggressive organizing campaign by the United Farm Workers (in conjunction with the AFLCIO, not itself a union but a federation of 78 unions). Frustrated at their lack of progress, organizers goaded "exploited" Hispanic field hands, even calling them "mother -- " and "son of a bitch," according to a sheriff's report. This sparked a fight, and later some 4,000 of the workers and their families turned out for a protest against the union's efforts, which, if successful, would have taken 2 percent of the workers' paychecks and kicked a portion of it over to Sweeney's AFL-CIO (which would have spent it to recruit even more workers unwilling to be organized). This did not stop Sweeney from showing up in Fresno -- HUD secretary Henry Cisneros at his side -- to avow, " If we don't grow in big numbers, we cannot survive."

Thus does today's AFL-CIO try to arrest the steep decline of the movement. In the mid-1950s, 34.7 percent of the national work force was unionized; that figure is now down to 14.6 percent. And Sweeney's highly touted measures serve mainly to reveal the growing gap between leadership and rank and file. His agenda bears a strong resemblance to the contemporary civil-rights movement in that it constantly invokes a glorious past (fighting for the 40- hour week, the minimum wage) to perfume a sorry present. He has increased ties to far-left groups and undertaken a costly, polarizing political campaign -- all the while honoring a long union tradition of corruption.

The differences between Sweeney and Kirkland are many and pronounced. Kirkland was an intellectual, obsessed with foreign policy, who presided over a flaccid bureaucracy and sometimes laid French on reporters (if he deigned to talk to them at all). Sweeney, born in the Bronx to Irish immigrants, exudes the common touch. Says Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican and a longtime acquaintance, "He's from the activist, Catholic Workers Union/Dorothy Day school. Labor is so intertwined with his Catholicism that he almost treats it as a religion."

Yet Sweeney has never worn his collar terribly blue. He majored in economics at Iona College in New Rochelle and then did a stint at IBM. Later, he signed up as a researcher for the lady garment workers. Before his AFL-CIO victory, he had risen to the presidency of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Union insiders say that Sweeney was a natural choice to challenge the federation establishment. He had allies in several quarters, including Gerald McEntee, boss of AFSCME, the powerful public-employees union, and Richard Trumka, then-president of the United Mine Workers, who represented the Sweeney insurgency's hard-left wing. (Trumka is now Sweeney's second-in- command, and many say that he will succeed him.)

McEntee, the architect of the coup, would by himself have proven unpalatable to the more conservative building-trade unions. But he and his like symbolize the future of the movement, as 42 percent of union members are now public employees. Only slightly more than one in ten private-sector workers belongs to a union. Says an AFL-CIO source, "The public sector is taking over, but Sweeney is their front man, an old-guard type. The trades and the manufacturing unions think of them as Johnnies-come-lately, and they recognize them as having different impulses, which is to make everybody a public-sector employee."