A Mutiny in the AFL-CIO

Citing a lack of commitment to recruitment and reform, the carpenters union cuts its ties with AFL-CIO and President John Sweeney

In a stinging rejection of AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, the 500,000-member United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) pulled out of the labor federation on Mar. 29. The last time such a split happened was in 1968, when the United Auto Workers stomped out over the federation's support for the Vietnam War.

The UBC's departure is both a financial blow to the AFL-CIO and a symbolic one. While its dues contribute just $3 million a year to the federation's $100 million-plus annual budget, the AFL-CIO spends every penny of it. The 13 million-member AFL-CIO has even drawn down its reserves in recent years.

Carpenters President Douglas J. McCarron has been threatening to break away for more than two years. He has told AFL-CIO leaders and his own members that Sweeney is wasting dues receipts on a bureaucracy of hundreds of officials that the AFL-CIO has hired since Sweeney took over in late 1995.


  McCarron, who wasn't available to talk to BusinessWeek Online, argues that the money should be spent on a recruiting campaign to reverse organized labor's decades-long slide in power. In a strongly worded letter to Sweeney, McCarron said: "After five years I have seen nothing to indicate the AFL-CIO is seriously considering changes that would cure [Sweeney's inability to make fundamental changes], nor do I see any realistic chance that an investment of more time or resources by the UBC will alter those facts. And for that reason the [union] has voted unanimously to end our affiliation with the AFL-CIO."

The breakaway touches a raw nerve in the labor movement because Sweeney took office pledging to do exactly what McCarron says he has failed to achieve Getting unions to focus on recruiting and organizing. In the past year or two, a growing chorus of union leaders has expressed similar, but private, misgivings about the large staff Sweeney has hired around the country. Up until McCarron's departure, however, none has talked about leaving the federation or directly confronting Sweeney.

AFL-CIO officials respond that McCarron's actions stem largely from his desire to poach on other building-trade unions' turf. They argue that he regularly mounts organizing drives among non-carpenter construction workers, offering electrician training and other skills to members. In a blistering Mar. 2 letter, Sweeney warned McCarron that the carpenters would lose the right to have the AFL-CIO referee disputes with other unions over such issues if the union withdrew from the AFL-CIO. All the same, says AFL-CIO Public Affairs Director Denise Mitchell, "Sweeney hopes that they will stay in and thinks they need be part of labor movement."


  McCarron's action is particularly damaging because he has a lot of credibility on the subject of reform. Since becoming president of the Carpenters Union in 1995, McCarron has moved more aggressively than any other labor leader, shoving out hundreds of officials, merging overlapping locals, and raking in millions of dollars by renovating and leasing out most of the union's Washington (D.C.) headquarters. McCarron has poured almost all of the proceeds into recruitment, hiring nearly 600 organizers. Some other unions twice the UBC's size have only a few dozen organizers.

On Mar. 27, Sweeney and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka made a last-ditch effort to halt a breakup vote when they addressed the UBC executive board in Las Vegas. But they failed to change any minds and the eight-member board voted to withdraw.

By Aaron Bernstein in Washington, D.C.

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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