Breaking Ranks with the AFL-CIO

Five union chiefs are making a joint push for new members

Earlier this year, a group of union leaders eager to reverse labor's long-term decline goaded AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney into setting up a streamlined new governance structure for the federation. Their goal: a complete overhaul of the AFL-CIO to focus it like a laser on getting labor's ranks growing again. Sweeney broadly agrees with them, but he bristled at the activists' moves and has essentially sidetracked the new executive committee instituted last February.

Now, BusinessWeek has learned, these rebellious labor chieftains have decided to take matters a step further by creating their own mini labor federation. Since early July, the head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and four other labor presidents have met several times to map out what they're informally calling the New Unity Partnership. On Sept. 2, they gathered again in Washington to discuss hiring staff and formalizing an agenda. The idea is to find new ways to stimulate growth in union rolls -- for example, by mounting joint recruitment campaigns against large national companies or across geographic regions. "The question is: Can we create something to help us all grow faster?" says SEIU President Andrew L. Stern, whose union, the AFL-CIO's largest, is one of the few that has been gaining members in the private sector.

The five, who have been talking to Teamsters President James P. Hoffa about joining their effort, also continue to map out their ideas for reforming the AFL-CIO. They have been discussing the issues they had hoped to push in the federation's new executive committee, such as reducing or eliminating many AFL-CIO functions to free up resources for growth. At this point, they're not talking about quitting the AFL-CIO -- unlike the course one of them, Carpenters President Douglas J. McCarron, took two years ago after his frustration over the federation's inaction boiled over. Nevertheless, "that could happen if things don't change," says one of the other four.

The gang of five are part of a new generation of labor leaders, mostly in their early 50s, who want to see more militant action to stem labor's decline. All five have put their own unions through often painful transformations, slashing bureaucracy and focusing dwindling resources on recruitment. Now, they want to make bold moves across the federation, such as throwing hundreds of recruiters and other resources into major organizing campaigns. "We all believe this is a critical time for labor, and we're not prepared to let it disappear on our watch -- not without an effort by us," says Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE, the needle trades union.

Problem is, most union leaders are divided about just how militant they want to be. Many seem content to bargain for existing contracts and make token efforts to refocus on growth. Only a handful have restructured themselves for big organizing pushes, despite years of exhortation by Sweeney and others. A few chiefs have been taking steps to make membership gains but perceive the five as divisive or grandstanding. "The AFL-CIO's doing a better job than it has in years," says one top union leader.

Complicating matters is the perception that several of the five harbor ambitions to replace Sweeney when his term expires in 2005. So their agenda hasn't been greeted with open arms. Indeed, the New Unity Partnership in some ways reflects a failure of the five to garner support for their program, prompting them to strike out on their own. AFL-CIO officials, for their part, vacillate between trying to accommodate the conflicting views of union presidents and lashing out at those challenging Sweeney's priorities. "Anyone who says you can crack a whip or knock heads [to force unions to change] is crazy," says Denise Mitchell, Sweeney's assistant for public affairs.

If the partnership gets off the ground, employers could see some stronger organizing drives. One example: UNITE and the Teamsters have already joined forces to target 17,000 workers at Cintas Corp. (CTAS ), a leading commercial launderer. UNITE has successfully unionized smaller rivals in the industry and may be able to put up a real fight with the clout of the much larger Teamsters, which also represents laundry workers.

The group is also talking about targeting industries by region. Florida and Arizona are two states they're eyeing. The SEIU has contracts with real estate and management companies for building workers, while the Laborers and Carpenters deal with the construction companies that build the properties. The idea is to push unionized employers in one industry to allow unimpeded organizing in the others. They want to target hotel chains, too, where the hotel employees union has members. "Far too many hotels are built by members of my union but run nonunion, or vice versa," says Laborers Union President Terence M. O'Sullivan.

Many of these ideas are already being tried by some unions, including most of the five. Still, this would be the first organization dedicated to helping unions grow again. If it works, other unions are likely to sign on -- and one of the five would likely take over the AFL-CIO and try them on an even broader scale.

By Aaron Bernstein in Washington

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