Why Sweeney Should Resign
As President of the AFL-CIO

(The first of three articles.)

By Harry Kelber

There are many compelling reasons why John Sweeney should step down as president of the AFL-CIO. Let's start with his record as a leader.

• In Sweeney's first 10 years in office, the AFL-CIO's membership fell from 14.9% of the nation's work force to 12.5%, a loss of 675,000 union members. He still has no realistic plan to reverse the continuing decline in members and economic power.

• It was the growing dissatisfaction with Sweeney's inept leadership that was largely responsible for the split within the AFL-CIO that led to the formation of the Change-to-Win coalition. He was too intent on winning a fourth term as president to take the necessary steps to preserve a united labor movement.

• During Sweeney's tenure, the AFL-CIO was unable to win a single piece of pro-worker legislation in Congress. Labor's lobbying efforts relied primarily on e-mails to the lawmakers rather than on huge mobilizations of determined union members.

• Sweeney's organizing staff, and Sweeney himself, were involved in the loss of the campaign to unionize Watsonville, Cal. strawberry workers, where strategic blunders transformed a nearly certain victory into a stunning defeat. Costly campaigns, like the Building Trades Organizing Project in Las Vegas and Seattle, and efforts to organize the hospitality workers in New Orleans also ended in short-lived failures. Yet, union members were kept in the dark about these and other defeats.

• Sweeney refused to allow any mention of the war in Iraq on the federation's website or in the AFL-CIO's public statements, as though it was a subject that did not concern working families. In the 2004 presidential election, he insisted on limiting labor's campaign to domestic issues, giving President Bush a blank check on waging war in Iraq.

• Although he often refers to polls that show some fifty million workers would like to join unions, Sweeney never developed a strategy to reach out to them. The AFL-CIO does not have a national radio network, TV channel or newspaper that can communicate labor's message to these unorganized workers, who tend to believe the anti-union propaganda in the media, because Sweeney and his colleagues hardly ever take the time or opportunity to refute them.

A Frozen Leadership with No Concern for the Future

When Sweeney was elected president in 1995, he initiated the "Union Summer" program, in which 1,500 young workers and students were invited to spend three weeks with unions, learning about their goals and participating in their campaigns. The program was designed to enrich the labor movement with a steady stream of idealistic young people, including women and people of color, many of whom would become labor leaders of the future. Today, "Union Summer" no longer exists, and no effort is being made to resurrect it.

Sweeney pointedly refused to send even a message of greetings to the Labor Notes conference, where some 1,000 labor activists, including representatives from 17 countries, met the weekend of May 5-7 to discuss the major problems confronting the labor movement. He clearly wants nothing to do with critics, no matter how constructive, whom he routinely ignores.

So, what have Sweeney and his allies on the Executive Council done to provide training for the next generation of national union leaders? Very little, if anything. Quite the contrary, they have chosen to freeze the policy-making Executive Committee to a group of international union presidents, who are mostly "male, pale and stale," over which Sweeney presides, and whose decisions, made behind closed doors, are rarely made known to union members.

Sweeney Is a Poor Spokesperson for Working People

One of the biggest raps against Sweeney is that he is such a poor spokesperson for the millions of workers he is supposed to represent. In his rare, but brief, appearances on national television, his comments are dull and predictable, delivered in a monotone, with almost no change in facial expression or body movement, and completely lacking in humor and wit.

Shouldn't the president of the AFL-CIO be invited to press conferences and talk shows when national economic, political and social issues of importance to working families are discussed? Sweeney almost never is. That's why the AFL-CIO has become marginalized and largely irrelevant in the public mind.

The only way we can get some idea of what Sweeney is thinking and doing is to go to his column on the AFL-CIO website or where he issues press statements about what he regards as important. Can anyone think of anything inspiring that Sweeney has said or done in recent years? Well, he wrote a book (actually had it written for him), with the profound observation in the title, "America Needs a Raise!" After seven years of trying, Sweeney hasn't figured out how to win even a federal minimum pay raise.

Stern Captures Media Attention; Sweeney in the Shadows

While the mainstream media won't give Sweeney the right time of day, they're falling all over themselves to provide a forum for Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union and the key figure in Change-to-Win, the AFL-CIO's rival. Stern had an entire segment of "60 Minutes," a Sunday CBS program seen by millions, to tell how he was going to rescue the middle class from its current plight and restore the "American Dream" to the nation's workers and their families. And he'd also find time to take on the Democratic Party.

Lesly Stahl, the CBS interviewer, was gentle with Stern, giving him free rein to make self-serving statements that could easily be challenged - except there was neither Sweeney nor any other top AFL-CIO official there to challenge Stern, or at least present another viewpoint.

Since Sweeney is maintaining his public silence, Stern appears to be speaking for the entire labor movement, not just for the CTW. Hešs been called "Labor's New Boss" and has attacked AFL-CIO leaders for their "status quo," selfish policies without getting them to respond. It's especially outrageous, since there is much to criticize about Stern's behavior and policy proposals.

If the AFL-CIO is to function effectively in the critical years ahead, its members must speak out in response to this blunt, unavoidable question: Can we any longer afford to have a tongue-tied, incompetent, undemocratic bureaucrat to lead a labor movement dedicated to serving the needs of working people?

Article 2: "Sweeney's Flaws Revealed in My Exclusive Interview" will be posted Monday, June 12, 2006 on www.laboreducator.org.

Harry Kelber's e-mail address is: hkelber@igc.org.