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Can This Man Save Labor?

Andy Stern wants to radically retool the U.S. labor movement. But first he must win over some powerful union leaders

The symbolism couldn't have been more stark: The son trying to overthrow the father. Seventy-year-old AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney had come to San Francisco in June to give a pep talk to 3,000 members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a union of public-sector, health-care, and janitorial workers he had run before becoming labor's chief honcho in 1995. But instead of a rousing homecoming reception, his successor and former protégé, 53-year-old SEIU President Andrew L. Stern, let rip a razor-sharp swipe at Sweeney's largely failed struggle to rejuvenate the labor movement over the past nine years.

Stern's message: Labor remains in a death spiral, and its house needs a top-to-bottom overhaul if it's ever going to revive. The AFL-CIO, he charged, has become an antiquated structure that "divides workers' strength." When the SEIU's own policies and traditions hindered its expansion, Stern reminded his audience, he swept them aside. Barring drastic action, he told his delegates, the 1.6-million-member SEIU should break away and start a new federation. Change "is so long overdue that we either transform the AFL-CIO -- or build something stronger," he proclaimed.