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ROBERT KUTTNER

Disunity at big labor

THE AFL-CIO seems on the verge of splintering. Five of the most dynamic unions are threatening to leave the labor federation over differences of organizing strategies and financing.

The timing is ominous. Earnings of ordinary workers are lagging inflation. Jobs, whether skilled or unskilled, are insecure, as are health and pension benefits. The future, except for a fortunate elite, seems to be outsourcing, downsizing, and Wal-Mart.

Polls show that nearly half of America's workers want a union-- a right protected by the 1935 Wagner Act. But workers face ferocious, often illegal resistance by America's corporations aided by a friendly Bush administration. Rather than permit free collective-bargaining elections, most corporations harass and fire pro-union workers and treat small penalties as costs of doing business.

Against this background, the unionized share of private-sector employment has dwindled to 8 percent of the workforce, or pre-New Deal levels.

When AFL-CIO president John Sweeney was elected in 1995, in the federation's first contested election, he represented radical change. Sweeney had been president of the Service Employees International Union, one of the most dynamic unions, and one of the few gaining members by organizing low-wage workers. Under Sweeney, the AFL-CIO increased organizing efforts and reversed labor's long-standing hostility to immigrants, seeing them as a new workforce to be enlisted.

Some impressive campaigns, such as the SEIU's Justice for Janitors and the hotel union's stunning success in organizing Las Vegas resorts, seemed to represent a resurgence. But with the continuing decline of industrial America and the growing resistance of corporate management, organized labor's share of the workforce continued to drop.

Now, in a reprise of 1995, Sweeney is in the role of the old guard. His own protege and successor at the SEIU, Andy Stern, in a drama worthy of Oedipus, is challenging Sweeney's leadership and the federation's structure. Stern and his ally Bruce Raynor, who heads the merged textile and hotel union, UNITE-HERE, joined by three other unions together representing nearly 40 percent of American trade unionists, want Sweeney, now 71, to retire. They want the AFL-CIO to rebate dues money to unions serious about organizing, and fix the jurisdictional muddle so that a lead union gets responsibility for a particular industry.

But Sweeney is determined to stand for reelection next month at the AFL-CIO's 50th anniversary convention in Chicago. He could win only to see the movement split. The insurgents don't quite have the votes to defeat Sweeney. Instead, in April they made several demands, most important that the AFL-CIO cut its staff by half and devote 75 percent of its budget to organizing. When that resolution was narrowly defeated, Sweeney offered to meet them halfway, firing nearly a third of the headquarters staff, and proposing $22.5 million for organizing.

However, the insurgency has passed a point of no return. Last week, the five unions announced a new coalition called Change to Win. Two other unions may join the coalition soon.

They are not leaving the AFL-CIO for now. But barring a compromise, there could soon be two rival labor federations. Under one scenario, Sweeney would win election and then step down in favor of a successor acceptable to both camps. This might be John Wilhelm, the widely respected head of the hotel and restaurant division of the merged apparel-hotel union, UNITE-HERE. Or it could be the head of the Laborers union, Terry O'Sullivan, one of the insurgent ''gang of five" who doesn't want to leave the AFL-CIO.

Beyond personalities, labor is divided into divergent subcultures -- service unions like SEIU; public-employee unions that live and die by electing political allies to office; and industrial unions hemorrhaging members because of the decline of integrated industries. A decade ago, the UAW had 460,000 workers at General Motors. With GM's latest downsizing, they will have just 75,000.

There are also vital and contentious issues about the best way to engage entire industries -- whether a single union should take the lead, as the hotel workers did, or whether through cooperative joint campaigns, as SEIU and the United Food and Commercial Workers and others have done with nursing homes.

Stern and Raynor are absolutely right that labor must organize or die. Wal-Mart, with its meager wages and dismal benefits, stands in mockery of everything that organized labor represents. But it will take the power of a united labor movement to make any headway against Wal-Mart and other low-wage employers. As the AFL-CIO grapples with the intertwined issues of succession and organizing strategy, the movement needs all the solidarity it can muster.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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