National unions form coordinating committee; AFL-CIO president announces retirement plans

WASHINGTON (PAI) AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney formally told top leaders of the federation that he will retire at the AFL-CIO Convention in September. At the same time, Sweeney, Change To Win leaders and National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel announced creation of the National Labor Coordinating Committee, a group of presidents of the nation’s 12 largest unions.

In arrangements worked out by American Rights At Work President David Bonior, the committee is the first concrete step towards reunifying the labor movement all under one roof. And that includes the 3.2-million-member NEA, which is both unaligned with either labor federation and the nation’s largest union.

Sweeney’s retirement was expected. The former Service Employees president, who will turn 75 in May 5, has led the now-56-union group since 1995, when his slate ousted incumbent Tom Donohue, who took over from Lane Kirkland months before.

Sweeney’s departure also comes at a key time for labor: Workers played a top role in electing pro-worker Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama to the White House and increasing pro-worker ranks in the Democratic-run Congress.

Increased political activism and mobilization, to enhance the chances of pro-worker legislation in Congress and nationwide, was and is a top Sweeney cause. The results were that unionists and their families were more than one-fifth of the electorate in 2008, almost double the share (12.4%) of union members in the workforce.

But even as Sweeney leaves, problems remain:

* Labor is still split. One of the leading events of Sweeney’s 14 years at the federation’s helm was the 2005 withdrawal of seven unions -- the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Teamsters, the Laborers, SEIU, UNITE HERE, the Carpenters and the United Farm Workers -- to form Change To Win. CTW wanted more emphasis on organizing and less on politics, but it has joined the AFL-CIO’s political efforts. The new coordinating committee is the first step to heal the split.

But Change To Win has its own problems: UNITE HERE has divided and a majority of its board voted to talk with Sweeney on re-affiliation with the AFL-CIO. UNITE HERE also charged SEIU was trying to take it over. SEIU has an internal battle with its biggest West Coast local. The Laborers, while not back in the AFL-CIO yet, are half-in, half-out, as members of its Building and Construction Trades Department.

* The Employee Free Choice Act, labor’s #1 legislative priority, which Obama supports and pledged to sign, faces a planned GOP Senate filibuster. It has yet to get the 60 committed senators it needs to break a fatal talkathon. A key senator, past co-sponsor Arlen Specter, R-Pa., defected under pressure from business and his party’s Radical Right, which wants to beat him in a primary next year. Several Democrats, notably Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have drifted away.

The bill would help level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining, by writing into law that workers -- not employers -- get to choose how they want their union recognized: Through an NLRB-run election or through the agency’s verification that the union collected authorization cards from a majority of employees at a worksite.

The bill would also increase penalties for labor law-breakers and mandate binding arbitration for a first contract if the two sides can’t agree within 120 days of starting bargaining. The Executive Committee spent part of its Meany Center session discussing the proposal’s prospects and labor’s nationwide campaign for it.

* Even without the CTW unions, the number of members in AFL-CIO-affiliated unions declined by a net of 43,326 from 2007 to 2008, and by 139,474 from 2003 to 2008, the federation’s own figures show.

That decline in turn has hurt the AFL-CIO’s finances, which depend on remittances -- calculated on a per-member basis -- from its 56 member unions, plus payments from its affinity credit card. The federation asked for voluntary contributions last year to pay for the big political push, but the payments fell short of goals.

* Successorship questions. Until Sweeney ousted Donohue at the 1995 convention in New York City, AFL-CIO presidents were often succeeded by their #2 officers, the secretary-treasurers. Current Secretary-Treasurer Richard L. Trumka, a former Mine Workers president, is a leading candidate to succeed Sweeney. But at least one CTW union that might return to the AFL-CIO would not do so if Trumka is in the top job. And other names have been floated for Sweeney’s post.

* Structure. Any new, unified labor federation must figure out its structure -- the consensus-based but sometimes-slow AFL-CIO, the leaner top-down CTW, or a mix of both. And it must figure out what to emphasize and what to leave to member unions.