POLITICS OCTOBER 6, 1997
John Sweeney's name rarely appears in print without the word "militant" attached to it. Sweeney first gained national prominence in 1995, when, as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), he led striking janitors in a sit-in that blocked morning rush-hour traffic on Washington, D.C.'s Fourteenth Street Bridge for two hours. Later that year, Sweeney burnished his reputation as a confrontationalist by running (and winning) an insurgent campaign in the first-ever contested election for the presidency of the AFLl-CIO. Heavy-set and balding, Sweeney comes across like central casting's idea of a rough-and-tumble, 1950s labor boss. He "acts like Che Guevera the guerrilla leader," says Don Sweitzer, a Democratic political consultant with long-standing labor ties. "He is an old-fashioned, confrontational union organizer who is not afraid to use unpopular methods to get to the bottom line."
But in person, the militancy is hard to see. Sweeney is courteous and grandfatherly. Even when answering pointed questions, he speaks in muted, congenial tones. And it is this side that made him a viable union leader in the first place. For all of his rabble-rousing, he rose through the ranks over the last four decades because of his backstage talent for appeasing, co-opting and soothing would-be adversaries. Quietly calculating, he even helped keep the afl-cio's member unions together for such highly traditional (if highly unsuccessful) lobbying efforts as the one on behalf of President Clinton's health care plan. Indeed, when a group of eleven officials representing afl-cio member unions first began plotting to change the federation's leadership back in the mid-'90s, they picked Sweeney to lead the charge because he was the only one among them capable of healing the scars that such a divisive campaign would inevitably leave.
This, then, is the irony of John Sweeney's ascendance to the leadership of the House of Labor. He is a product of the moribund institution he has set out to reform. That Sweeney has come to power with a strong mandate to shake up labor is a measure of how desperate for change some of the afl-cio's member unions had become. That they turned to him is a measure both of how shallow the federation's pool of truly fresh, insurgent leadership was, and of how delicate the job of overcoming bad old union habits still is. Sweeney is labor's Mikhail Gorbachev: the man who rose through the ranks of a hidebound organization, accumulating allies and information along the way, until his chance to take over and do things differently finally came. But we all know how Gorbachev ended up. Caught between reactionaries and radicals, he managed to enact just enough perestroika to destabilize the Soviet Union forever. Of course, the Soviet Union wasn't worth saving. A free, democratic trade union movement is a pillar of American democracy, or should be.
So far, Sweeney's blend of militancy and moderation has served him well. In politics, he has struck an aggressive posture toward a Republican Congress that hates unions and a conciliatory one toward a Democratic president who tolerates them; within the federation, he has boldly pushed for more organizing and a more diverse movement, but not so boldly that he risks losing the support of labor's entrenched establishment. Sweeney inherited a labor movement so increasingly bereft of members that it was on the verge of extinction—the result of increasing globalization of the American economy, of hostility from the business community and of the movement's own lazy inertia. Now there is optimism and activity at all levels. Although unions actually lost 100,000 members in 1996, the decades-long decline in union membership seems finally to be bottoming out. At the afl-cio's biannual convention in Pittsburgh this week, hundreds of union delegates will render a positive verdict on Sweeney's first two years as they gather to re-elect him, unopposed, for another term as president.
But while Sweeney has earned that reward, the easy part of his job is now over. In 1995 virtually any activity at all from the federation leadership was bound to be an improvement. Now Sweeney must go from merely stopping decay to actually increasing labor's ranks significantly beyond the current levels—15 percent of the total workforce, and just 10 percent of the private-sector non-agricultural workforce. And he must do it by recruiting workers in the low-wage service sector, where there are proportionally more non-unionized laborers, but where organizing drives are historically the most difficult.
This would be a daunting task for any afl-cio president, and not merely because of relatively pro-company labor laws and resistance from corporate America. For the last quarter-century, labor's image among workers, and among the public at large, has been defined by stories about well-paid union members striking to get even more, corrupt union leaders skimming off pension funds and well-heeled union lobbyists cutting backroom deals in Washington. To survive and grow, labor must shed this image, even if it was not entirely deserved, and that will mean confronting both the movement's own institutionalist conservatives and the Democratic politicians who now take union support for granted.In short: labor needs the militant Sweeney.
The afl-cio's boxy headquarters building sits at 815 Sixteenth Street in Washington, no more than a hundred yards from Lafayette Park, and just a short stroll from the White House. Except for a church and a hotel, it is the building closest to the executive mansion's north face. Sweeney can glimpse the White House when he looks out a floorto-ceiling window on the corner of his sixth floor office, and it's fair to assume that the current occupant of the White House has spent a good deal of time peering back.
The location is symbolic of the afl-cio's longstanding strategy of maintaining its share of the labor force by maintaining its quantum of power in Washington. And Sweeney's most talked-about preoccupation during the last two years has been the effort to inject some new life into that traditional national political strategy. Although the labor movement had always maintained strong ties to the Democratic Party, if only because it remained a significant source of the party's contributions, its influence over federal domestic policy had waned under the leadership of Lane Kirkland, whose real passion was for international crusades on behalf of workers in communist countries. Labor never quite recovered politically from its disastrous early endorsement of Walter Mondale's presidential candidacy in 1984.After that, lobbyists for the federation and individual unions were largely content to cut deals here and there, protecting union jobs one industry at a time.
Upon taking office, Sweeney made two key realizations: first, that focusing on such a narrow and defensive agenda would only confirm the public's suspicion that organized labor was just another Washington interest group; and, second, that in the 1990s the more effective way to influence politicians is not through campaign contributions but through independently financed television ads that shape voter attitudes. Sweeney united the movement's disparate elements, at both the local and national level, behind a new political platform—a call for higher living standards under the banner, "America Needs A Raise." Sweeney even put out a book (ghostwritten by former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet) under the same title. And in the spring of 1996, Sweeney rolled out his campaign on behalf of a cause most inside-the-Beltway pundits dismissed as hopeless: getting the Republican-controlled Congress to enact a higher federal minimum wage.
What made the minimum wage campaign so important was what it said about who the labor movement is, or, rather, who Sweeney wanted it to be. Though very few union members make the minimum wage themselves, the campaign did promise to benefit afl-cio workers, since a higher minimum wage would, at the margins, reduce employers' incentive to switch from union to non-union labor. But in taking up this cause, Sweeney shrewdly cast the unions' position not as a battle for their own betterment, but as a battle for society's have-nots, broadly defined.
Also conspicuous about the minimum wage campaign was that it was led from the north side of Lafayette Park. Although the Clinton administration had long been on record as supporting the increase, it did not take the lead in promoting a higher minimum wage, probably because, like most of the Beltway establishment, it believed the issue was a non-starter. Only after labor took to the grass-roots—or, more precisely, to the airwaves—did the administration start to move.
When the measure finally did pass, the labor victory seemed to herald the rise of a rejuvenated liberal force on the increasingly conservative American political scene. Certainly labor's influence worried pro-business institutions such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Since the minimum wage fight, however, the labor movement has become more defensive and more accommodating, at least in its relations with the White House. Sweeney has assumed the political posture of the Kirkland era, shoring up the moderate center (Clinton) to defeat the anti-union right (the GOP Congress). But this strategy failed Sweeney's predecessor because it never achieved such critical goals as labor law reform, and because it fostered the impression that unions were just another Washington lobby. "Sometimes it's good to be across from the White House and sometimes it's bad," says one senior union staffer. "You get a little too close."
Consider, for example, what happened to the "America Needs A Raise" campaign, which mysteriously disappeared from public prominence in the summer of 1996. The federation put the campaign on the back burner after the White House—then under the sway of consultant Dick Morris—made it clear that Bill Clinton was going to run against Bob Dole on the defensive theme of protecting education, Medicare and Social Security. There's no proof there was an explicit arrangement, but the logic seems transparent: because the Clinton camp deemed the focus on stagnant wages too politically volatile—it might have led voters to ask why the president himself hadn't delivered better pay for average workers—the labor movement abandoned the one political theme most closely tied to its fundamental mission of raising living standards. Instead, it pumped unprecedented amounts of money into the 1996 campaign—some $119 million, nearly all on behalf of congressional Democrats, according to one recent report by the Center for Responsive Politics. Much of it was spent on TV and radio ads spouting the administration's campaign line.
That spending, so conspicuously partisan, has become the subject of increasing scrutiny from both campaign finance investigations in Congress and the public at large. (This is a serious, though largely unfair, charge: labor is no more partisan than other nominally independent groups such as the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association, and business still outspends labor by seven-to-one.) More recently, even some activists within the labor movement have raised their eyebrows over the pas de deux between unions and the White House over the 1998 budget. As the administration edged closer to a budget deal that endorsed large tax breaks skewed toward the wealthy, many liberals went on the attack, urging a harder line from the White House—if not an outright veto.
Labor, however, played an inside game, focusing on fending off a Republican workfare proposal that seemed to threaten the jobs of unionized public employees. Sweeney and afscme President Gerald McEntee, who is personally close to both Clinton and Vice President Gore, lobbied the administration privately. When McEntee spoke out publicly, he did so by criticizing the administration's point man on welfare, Bruce Reed, and not the president himself. The administration went along, making it clear that it would not sign any budget that included the Republican workfare initiative; labor reciprocated by praising the budget deal and offering only tepid criticism.
It's true that labor is about to launch an aggressive campaign against the administration's request for fast-track negotiating authority on free trade agreements. But a full-court press was not a foregone conclusion—it took pressure from the industrial unions who suffer most directly from international competition. Originally, labor officials told me, Sweeney's close circle of advisers at the afl-cio worried that too rigid a stand against nafta expansion might jeopardize relations with the administration over what was probably a losing cause. (Sweeney denies this.) Sweeney and most of his advisers, who, like him, came up through the service industry and public sector unions, also tend to care about trade less than the industrial unions. (This is evidence of an emerging split that promises to grow in the 2000 presidential campaign, which will likely pit the administration's point man on trade, Vice President Al Gore, against its most vocal critic, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt.
Whatever the merits of the trade issue, though, the episode raises disturbing questions about who's really in charge of labor's agenda—leaving the impression among some people that the afl-cio is still just a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic National Committee, as its critics have always said. Union officials themselves are starting to wonder what their political money is buying: Sweeney failed to dislodge a Republican Congress in 1996 and his political partner is a centrist president whose present preoccupation is an initiative anathema to much of the labor movement. "If you're part of the system and doing well, there's an argument for not rocking the boat," says one labor official. "But we're part of the system and we're not doing well. We have the image of the Washington interest groups and none of the benefits."
Of course, while Sweeney's political activity dominates the public discussion about unions, it is Sweeney's efforts to rebuild the movement internally—to refocus it on organizing new members, and to broaden its membership base to include more low-income workers—which will ultimately determine whether labor can resurrect itself. And Sweeney has done best in this area when he has played the role of labor agitator. Before Sweeney, the federation's organizing resources were folded into a larger department that was preoccupied with other tasks. Sweeney made organizing a separate department with an expanded budget, and tapped a young, aggressive organizer named Richard Bensinger to head it. The afl-cio still can't actually organize on its own—signing up new members is something individual unions do for themselves. But the federation can advise current organizers, train new ones and provide other forms of assistance, which, under Sweeney, is just what it's been doing.
Labor leaders used to write off organizing as virtually impossible under pro-employer U.S. labor laws.Their skepticism was well-founded: in most Canadian provinces, unions can represent employees as soon as a majority of workers sign cards affirming their desire to organize; in the U.S., once business contests an organizing drive, there must be an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (nlrb), which can be a prelude to months—maybe years—of appeals and litigation even if the union wins fair and square.
Yet since labor law reform is not in the cards, at least not soon, Sweeney and Bensinger tell union leaders that they must learn to organize members without going through the nlrb. Specifically, they say, unions must bring pressure to bear on employers—through slick media campaigns, the manipulation of pension funds controlled by unions, peaceful trouble-making like picket lines and old-fashioned house calls to workers themselves. If the pressure gets intense enough, Sweeney and Bensinger say, then companies will come to see that recognizing unions is in their own best interest.And just to prove the point, Sweeney has put federation resources behind this effort, creating among other things a corporate affairs department whose entire purpose is to find out how to put pressure on companies that fight organizing drives.
Sweeney and Bensinger also preach proactive thinking about organizing—say, by having unions agree to forgo some wage increases in order to secure agreements from companies not to fight future organizing drives. In Las Vegas, the example federation officials seem most fond of citing, such tactics have allowed a local affiliate of here (the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union) to more than double its membership from 18,000 to over 40,000 in the last ten years—with 8,000 new members added last year alone.
And, yes, Sweeney still foments militant organizing campaigns. In July of this year, Sweeney led a rally in New York that blocked traffic on East Fifty-Sixth Street, in front of the midtown office building of Merrill Lynch. It was part of a campaign to pressure the WheelingPittsburgh Steel company into giving striking workers a favorable settlement. Why protest in Manhattan? Because Merrill Lynch is a major shareholder in Wheeling-Pitt's parent company. The tactic seems to have worked: the workers got a favorable settlement. "We want to build bridges with employers first," Sweeney has said. "But if it requires blocking bridges, we will."
To Sweeney's credit, such aggressive tactics and forward-thinking negotiating strategies are markedly different from organized labor's attitude in previous eras. Yet in attempting to spread his new ideas, Sweeney remains hamstrung by the inherent weakness of his job. Most of labor's power resides with the leaders of union locals and nationals, not with the president of the afl-cio. So far, Sweeney has relied on the power of his presidential bully pulpit to push his reforms. But that strategy may have reached the point of diminishing returns.
While Sweeney says unions need to devote 30 percent of their resources to organizing, and virtually every labor leader agrees publicly, Business Week reported earlier this year that unions only spend $200 million a year on organizing—or about 4 percent of their estimated annual revenue stream of $5 billion. Other estimates put the number closer to 10 percent. In any event, the labor leaders who spoke to me described the 30 percent figure as an ideal that may never be reached, mostly because union officials—particularly at the local level—still worry that taking money from services for dues-paying members will merely destroy labor's remaining base. "Everyone will say, yes, we're in a big crisis," says an official at one of the major industrial unions. "The rubber hits the road when you have to take political risks, when you need to divert more money to organizing and less money for servicing, because now maybe people will vote me out of office."
At the national level, Sweeney has found some creative ways to extend his influence over affiliates.For example, Sweeney has instigated union mergers, such as the pending merger of the autoworkers, the steelworkers and the machinists—three unions that have been decimated in recent decades by industrial downsizing. These mergers promise to enhance union bargaining leverage against global manufacturing behemoths, and they prevent struggling unions from fighting with one another for new members.
But, of course, not everybody wins when unions merge. High officials lose power and prestige. And the resistance to Sweeney's campaign is already mounting. At the afl-cio executive council meeting in Chicago this August, Sweeney proposed a constitutional amendment that would have shifted some influence over mergers from union presidents to Sweeney and the federation. According to sources familiar with the meeting, representatives from a handful of unions balked. "The federation can't make that happen, because it is a federation," says McEntee. "It has to come from the unions themselves, wanting to do that, wanting to put aside a couple of the admirals' hats and chiefs' hats, and some of the old history... I don't know if it can happen."
Sweeney has backed away from the proposed amendment, and will presumably fight for it another day. Those who know Sweeney well say this is the way he usually handles contentious issues: push until somebody squawks, then pull back. "It's a very sensitive area," Sweeney confesses. "It requires a lot of tender loving care." Or does it? "While Sweeney brings a sense of energy and revitalization that was not there before, candidly I think you have to wonder whether there's enough of a sense of crisis," says a high-ranking official at one of the federation's largest unions. "I wish he were willing to say inside the house of labor that, fellas, we are near the point of becoming irrelevant. We've got to recognize that if we don't take more significant risks we risk literally falling off the face of the earth."
Sweeney's strategy of bending but not breaking labor's establishment could work if the organizing initiatives panned out quickly enough. But organizing is a slow process: Sweeney told me he hopes for modest goals of 2 to 3 percent growth a year, but even that figure is questionable. As the business community becomes more aware of labor's power, it will fight harder, which will mean more elections through the clunky nlrb process, where unions continue to fare poorly. "What's different is that there's now a sense that labor is going to put up a strong fight," Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who is a union supporter, told The Washington Post. "There's no certainty that labor is going to win."
If the organizing bogs down, as seems likely, institutional conservatives will doubtless make a power play of their own. Already, there are rumblings from them about the high-minded crowd of upstarts Sweeney brought into the federation's operation. The activists, many of whom are products of left-wing political activity in the 1960s and 1970s, talk about solidarity, building bridges to liberal interest groups and developing a broad movement for the "oppressed." But this rhetoric alienates the union establishment, fostering suspicion about Sweeney's plans.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies this tension better than the federation's slick new magazine, America@work. Before Sweeney, labor's house organ was the afl-cio News, which was every bit the staid, gray, newspaper-style publication the name implies. America@work, in contrast, clearly reflects the mindset of the twentysomething and thirtysomething workers whom Sweeney is targeting for union membership. It has big, glossy pages, big full-color graphics and big words (or at least words in big type). A typical story in America@work is about young people, women or minorities. "When working people join together and reach beyond the barriers of color and culture, they can shake and remake the world," one article quoted Sweeney as saying. "We will build a movement so strong, so inclusive, so energetic that we will raise the wages, lift the spirits, and strengthen the solidarity of every working man and woman."
This pitch doesn't exactly resonate in the powerful, male-dominated industrial and building trade unions. "There was a recent issue of America@work that had a review of a Spike Lee movie," says one longtime union insider who worries about Sweeney's approach. "Can you imagine going out to a worker in Omaha, showing him this and convincing him that labor is something that represents his interests?" But labor desperately needs the African Americans, Latinos and women who predominate in the service economy, where the organizing potential is highest because companies can't pick up and move their operations overseas. And labor needs these groups represented at higher levels in union leadership. (Blacks and Latinos already outnumber whites in the labor movement, and nearly half of all unionized workers are female, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) Thus, while Sweeney might be well-advised to refine his message so that it doesn't alienate older union members whose ill will could torpedo Sweeney's presidency, to abandon it altogether would forfeit the support of the younger, more diverse work force he wants to organize.
Sweeney has made a point of marching with the downtrodden, with an emphasis on the most mediagenic laborers with the most sympathetic grievances—strawberry pickers in California, part-time workers at UPS and so on. Unfortunately, Sweeney's own physical appearance often undermines his effort at image enhancement. Those who know Sweeney seem dumbfounded by the suggestion he might not be an appealing spokesman, probably because he makes such a good impression in person.But on television, Sweeney's gentle, genial speaking style comes across as a monotone. And in print photographs, where there is no voice and no moving gestures to give a reader context, cameras frequently capture Sweeney with eyebrows sharply arched over smallish, drooping eyes, making him look something like a James Bond villain. The afl-cio once commissioned a poll of reporters, asking them to assess which labor leaders make the most favorable public impression. Although Sweeney finished ahead of Kirkland, who was legendary for his disdain of the press, he polled behind afl-cio Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, afl-cio Executive Vice-President Linda Chavez-Thompson and several union presidents, including the Teamsters' Ron Carey and the Service Employees International Union's Andrew Stern.
Far more important than physical appearance, though, is Sweeney's apparent unwillingness to confront the demons of labor's past—even the demons that are the products more of anti-labor mythmaking than actual historical reality. Despite the outpouring of support for the Teamsters in their strike against UPS, most polls show that a majority of non-unionized Americans would not be interested in joining a union. This is an old story in the United States, where a strong strain of individualism fosters skepticism about collective labor action. But the low poll numbers also reflect a sense, handed down by generation, that unions are corrupt and don't really serve the interests of workers.
In the Teamsters strike, UPS got caught flat-footed by the Teamsters' rapid-response public relations machine. That won't likely happen again: business lobbies and conservatives are already mobilizing around the issues of union corruption and union violence. The National Right to Work Committee, an anti-union group, recently staged a rally in Washington, D.C., to decry union violence; The Wall Street Journal editorial page is raising the issue as well. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah sponsored a bill this summer to invalidate a court ruling that exempts union officials from a narrow class of federal extortion laws. Although union violence is mostly a bogus issue—and although the extent of corruption is greatly exaggerated—these perceptions will define public opinion if Sweeney does not respond.Unfortunately, Sweeney won't even deign to address the issues. When I asked him about union corruption, he countered, "What about corrupt business?"
Alas, Sweeney's own history of taking on entrenched leaders is spotty. Sweeney's most notable brush with an old-style union official came during the early 1990s, while he was still the president of seiu.The Association for Union Democracy, a pro-union watchdog group, says it had fielded hundreds of complaints against Gus Bevona, the president of New York's largest local, 32b-32j, and reputedly the highest-paid labor official in the country. Local 32b-32j just happens to be Sweeney's old union. Yet despite Bevona's notoriety and the fact that he seemed to exemplify much of what Sweeney now says is wrong with the labor movement, Sweeney continued to sit on the local's board while he was president of seiu and to draw a salary, as Jeffrey Goldberg reported in New York magazine. Later, a federal court slapped the local with a $100,000 penalty after the union hired a private investigator to trail a dissident member. Goldberg also reported that records showed Sweeney, as a member of the board, approved the investigator's hiring. Sweeney was unavailable for comment on this matter; in the past he has defended his extended involvement with 32b-32j, saying, "I work for that salary...and I'm heavily involved in the activities of that local."
It is telling that officials at the association give Sweeney high marks anyway: merely by reasserting labor's political and organizational presence, they say, Sweeney has restored some faith among the rank-and-file. And once Sweeney became afl-cio president, he pointedly did not endorse Bevona's candidacy for the vacant seiu presidency. The likely explanation for Sweeney's passive role in the Bevona matter is union politics. Since 32b-32j was New York's largest local, and Bevona had many allies, this was probably a fight Sweeney just couldn't afford to take on at the time.
If so, it wasn't the first time Sweeney made such a calculation. But now, in matters of politics both external and internal, he can ill afford to be so cautious. It is a credit to John Sweeney's leadership that the terms of debate have shifted so markedly in the last two years—that we can now ask not whether unions will die, but what exactly they will become. The best way for Sweeney to ensure that unions once again become a powerful voice for America's workers is to remain true to his public, militant persona. For a real reformer, the middle of the road is no place to take a stand.
Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor of The New Republic.