Disorganized Labor

Sweeney's dismissal of his chief organizer sparks a furor

John J. Sweeney won the presidency of the AFL-CIO in late 1995 with a bold message: Unions must reinvent themselves to grow again. Ever since, he has exhorted labor leaders to focus their efforts on signing up new members.

Now, Sweeney's bid to revitalize labor has been dealt a setback--and he himself has delivered the blow. On June 8, Sweeney abruptly fired AFL-CIO Organizing Director Richard Bensinger, the brains behind labor's recruitment strategies and its charismatic proselytizer. Why? Angry Bensinger supporters say he was removed because Sweeney's aides--Chief of Staff Robert W. Welsh and Public Affairs Director Denise Mitchell--saw criticisms by organizers as a threat to their programs. Mitchell says organizing is Sweeney's priority, but "it takes a range of strategies to make labor grow again." Bensinger declined comment.

"WRONG APPROACH?" The dismissal has kicked up a firestorm of protest, and some union leaders now fear that Bensinger's removal will set back their battles to refocus their own unions on recruitment. "A lot of what I've done I've taken from Bensinger," says Robert E. Wages, president of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers. "Now he's been canned and my [executive] board is asking me, `Does this mean his approach is wrong?"'

Long term, the failure to organize workers could damage labor more than all the scandals involving the Teamsters. While the tight labor market gives labor the best opportunity in years to score victories in contract negotiations and entice new members, Sweeney may be mired in an internal squabble.

It's easy to see why Bensinger, 47, became a lightning rod. He bluntly tells union leaders that their inaction is responsible for labor's decline. For two years, Bensinger has toured the country with slides of labor's plummeting membership, telling locals that the trend will continue unless they change. His strategy is tough medicine: Put staff on recruitment and cut back on grievances and bargaining, a union's core functions.

The irony is that Bensinger's work is paying off. He has helped plan internal restructurings at many unions, including the auto and electrical workers. All are readying efforts to recruit members across entire industries, such as auto parts, or at big companies such as General Electric Co.

Locals are listening, too. Some 150 have shifted at least 10% of their budgets to organizing. "Richard has made his organizing views the conventional wisdom among unions," says Bruce Raynor, Secretary-Treasurer of UNITE, the needle trades union.

So why was Bensinger dumped? Because Sweeney aides thought he was stirring up organizers, insiders say. Many organizers have criticized a $10 million-a-year program that helps locals with politics and membership drives and a $20 million-a-year plan for a television advertising campaign to bolster the image of unions. This money, they say, should go to recruitment. Organizers even charge Sweeney with failing to allocate the 30% of his budget he pledged to spend on organizing. AFL-CIO officials deny shortchanging organizing and contend these programs foster recruitment.

How Sweeney handles the anger over Bensinger's dismissal could be key to the damage it will do. If unions see him turning away from organizing, the attempt to spur massive recruitment drives could suffer just as it's taking off.

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