Sweeney Labors in Vain for Campaign Cash

The AFL-CIO president asked union chiefs assembled in New Orleans for big bucks to back candidates in November. So far, he hasn't got it

After months of internal wrangling, the AFL-CIO's Executive Council failed on Feb. 26 to endorse the 2002 budget AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney wants to fund contributions in the fall political elections. Sweeney vows that the federation will spend some $35 million in this Presidential midterm election cycle. But he's still about $10 million short.

Labor leaders' reluctance to pony up the money doesn't mean they oppose a vigorous political campaign prior to November's elections. Indeed, with Democrats holding the Senate by just one vote and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives up for grabs, many union presidents want Sweeney to double labor's efforts to get their members to the polls. "Our political efforts are the best thing we do," says Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE, the clothing-workers union, at the Federation's annual winter meeting in New Orleans.

Instead, the debate reflects widespread dissatisfaction with Sweeney's spending priorities. Since 1997, unions in the AFL-CIO have coughed up an extra $35 million or so for politics every two years, on top of the federation regular budget. Sweeney had asked them to pony up again at the AFL-CIO's quadrennial convention last December.


  Many labor leaders balked when he first began asking them about the issue last summer. Instead, they urged him to cut the workforce he had built up since taking over the AFL-CIO in 1995. Some union officials believe the federation has become too much of a bureaucracy. They want to redirect programs to focus more on politics and recruiting new members.

Sweeney has responded, reducing the AFL-CIO's staff from 500 to 450 and redeploying personnel across the country. He also has merged several departments and closed others. Those efforts, however, still haven't satisfied all of the federation's 66 unions. Some are reluctant to increase contributions at a time when their organizations have lost thousands of members due to the recession and the impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Some union leaders want even more changes. The Communications Workers, for example, proposed that Sweeney fund political efforts by diverting some of the $12 million dedicated to organizing -- a program he and some others believe hasn't worked effectively. Another faction believes organizing remains key to the labor movement's future. This group just wants to reform the AFL-CIO's organizing approach. Says Andy Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union: "The issue hasn't been resolved."


  Because union leaders couldn't agree where the extra money for political activity should come from, the Council took a fallback position. It agreed that unions should boost the political fund by an extra 4 cents per member -- about $7 million a year -- over the next two years. But since Sweeney failed to get his budget approved at the December convention, which must approve all hikes in federation dues, even that sum won't get final approval until a special meeting of all AFL-CIO unions in May.

The increase, which will likely pass easily, still leave the AFL-CIO about $10 million short of Sweeney's $35 million goal. No problem, says Sweeney. The federation will raise the money in time for the fall campaign season, either through unions' voluntary contributions or by instituting more cuts in the federation's budget. Says Sweeney: "The money will come from [union] affiliates and reallocating [AFL-CIO] staff and redirecting costs. We'll have enough to be effective in the midterm elections." As for the larger issue of how the federation will spend its money, that's still an open issue.

By Aaron Bernstein in New Orleans

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.