Sweeney’s Last Term

By November 28, 2004Labor Unions

Sources inside and outside the AFL-CIO are abuzz with speculation that one way or another, this is John Sweeney’s last term as President. The 70 year-old labor leader has announced plans to run for re-election in July, but will either be defeated by a growing movement dissatisfied with his leadership or – in the face of overwhelming odds – will decide to return to the farm. Amy Joyce’s excellent piece in yesterday’s Washington Post outlines the growing restiveness, embodied for the moment by Service Employees’ President Andy Stern. But Stern does not want for allies in this jihad, as he is but one of the “three amigos”, along with the Ivy-league trained Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm, all fairly aggressive organizers and progressive, outside-the-box thinkers. Raynor is President of UNITE/HERE, Wilhelm a “divisional President” of the same, recently-merged entity. In truth, since the merger, Wilhelm has a lower profile and smaller portfolio, making him the ideal candidate to ascend to the President’s slot in that he won’t have to leave the Presidency of an International Union to do so. Add Doug McCarron, President of the Carpenters’ Union to the mix, who left the AFL recently but may re-join if it hastens Sweeney’s ouster. McCarron’s addition to the troika of Stern, Wilhelm and Raynor would help the ticket pull the votes of the more conservative building trades unions, which they would need.

What’s so strange is that this is an eerie replay of the dynamics that put Sweeney in power in the first place so many years ago. The troops (most notably AFSCME President Gerry McEntee) were growing restless with the aloof, distant style of then-President Lane Kirkland, who — like Sweeney — was coming off a run of stinging political defeats. When approached with the fact that he would have opposition, Kirkland stubbornly refused to step down, only deciding at the last minute to do so, leaving his loyal lieutenant — and Sweeney friend and mentor — Tom Donahue as his heir apparent. Sweeney jumped on his old friend’s bandwagon, then quickly abandoned it in the face of McEntee’s promise to make him king. He ran against his old friend in a bitterly contested race and won.

It is deja vu all over again. Sweeney is insisting — at least publicly — that he will run for election, in the face of growing long odds. Confronted by the troops, he may decide to step down, leaving Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka to carry the torch. By then, as last time, the insurgents will be well-organized and focused, and will easily coast to victory. As is clear from Joyce’s article of yesterday, the AFL-CIO is already working on an agenda set by Stern, not by Sweeney. It is only a matter of time before Sweeney’s marble Taj Mahal on 16th St. becomes his mausoleum.