Online Extra: "What's the Value of the AFL-CIO?"

Machinists union head Thomas Buffenbarger says it's time to rethink the federation's role

International Association of Machinists (IAM) President R. Thomas Buffenbarger seems to be fed up with both AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and SEIU President Andy Stern. Like several other industrial unions, the IAM has become increasingly estranged from the AFL-CIO in recent years, largely because of what it perceives as its preoccupation with service-sector union concerns. Many industrial unions have been particularly unhappy that the AFL-CIO wasn't able to block the expansion of new free-trade pacts under former President Bill Clinton. Their membership has been battered badly by globalization and they're frustrated that the labor movement hasn't been able to do more to help.

Buffenbarger recently talked with BusinessWeek Senior Writer Aaron Bernstein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: What do you think about Stern and his criticisms of the labor movement?


I think this New Unity Partnership [which Stern is part of] is just another way to continue the SEIU's hold on the AFL-CIO. I'm not too sure that Sweeney and Stern are at each other's throats. If they are really fighting, then they eat their own, because they both come out of the same union.

Q: What do you think is really going on then?


What we have is a New York-corridor approach. Andy is from Pennsylvania and had a career in New York. [UNITE/HERE President Bruce] Raynor is from New York; [Laboreris International Union President] Terry O'Sullivan, a lot of his union is in New York. What we've really got is a New York corridor that knows what's best for everyone. They're having a family squabble and want to suck in the rest of us. The NUP guys are saying, "I've got a better idea than the guy that's there now." But that's what Sweeney said when he took over, too.

Q: What should the AFL-CIO do?


The AFL-CIO is supposed to be a loose federation. It should come together to speak with a unified voice, mostly on politics. Now it worries about immigrants and a whole array of things except for those in labor movement. It has lost its focus.

Q: What about Stern and his NUP colleagues?


They have not waited until after the (Presidential) elections like they said they would. Instead, they proceeded to talk out, and Sweeney is sitting by letting it happen, like when he went to the [SEIU] convention. In our union, we would never insult someone who comes to address our convention like that, certainly not in their presence. But John sat there and listened to it all.

Q: Do you agree with any of the substantive ideas from Stern and the NUP, about union mergers and all that?


They want the AFL-CIO to dictate to member unions. That's going to cause me in my convention in September to engage a resolution that would probably take us out of the AFL-CIO, because it no longer serves the interest of the IAM. It's so screwed up, we're thinking of getting out regardless of what happens.

Q: You really want to leave the AFL-CIO?


I want the same deal [Carpenters' President Doug] McCarron's got. We pay about $4 million to the AFL-CIO every year. But I'm still going to jurisdiction dispute hearings with McCarron, even though he's out and paying no dues at all. I've had deep discussions in my union. This is not done lightly or easily. We're wondering what's the value of the AFL-CIO?

Q: What exactly is the problem you see?


The problem is both Sweeney, because nothing has happened while he's been in, and Stern causing trouble. We're taking our eye off the ball, which is to grow unions and lift every workingperson's boat. Look at the arrogance of merging unions. Who ordained them to engage this debate? And Sweeney sits there and lets it go on.

I'm one who thinks that maybe the AFL-CIO's time has come and gone. I believe there needs to be a debate about where we're going and the real role of the AFL-CIO, but its role in my view is just to be a conduit for debate. It has no business taking a role in my union.

Q: Have you been saying this to other union leaders?


I've raised some of these issues at the [AFL-CIO's] Executive Committee, even though it's the biggest farce I've ever seen. There was one in June after the [SEIU] convention, and Stern was at the meeting on phone. Bruce [Raynor, President of UNITE/HERE] was the only one of the NUP there in person. Before the meeting, I told Sweeney, "There's nothing on the agenda here about Andy's recent convention, where he took on the AFL-CIO, and I think we need to have a conversation about what he said." Sweeney said we will, but first we need to get past the elections.

Then we went through two hours of staffers making presentations, which is just what the committee [comprising only union leaders] was planned to avoid. Finally, this was the last item on the agenda, and Sweeney mentioned it and said, "Let's wait to talk about this until November." I said, "I disagree. I want to hear what they have to say."

They're not waiting, they're using their conventions to talk out, so let's get the discussion going about where the AFL-CIO wants to go.

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