The Fruits of Labor’s Split, v.3: The Organizing Institute, R.I.P.

By August 17, 2005Labor Unions

A few weeks ago we posted a piece entitled, “The SEIU: What Goes Around…” about the bad karma at the SEIU, birthplace of, among others, John Sweeney, Andy Stern and Tom Donahue. The latter, as we said in that piece, was one of the most decent men ever to grace that union, that federation or this city. He was interested in — God forbid — organizing. To that end, he started a thing called the Organizing Institute, staffed it with a very able guy (too able, some might say) named Rich Bensinger. From its founding in 1 through about ’93 the Institute helped train some 350 organizers and a few thousand rank-and-file union members, turning them loose around the country. Some unions, like AFSCME, an organizing powerhouse, probably got half their organizers trained by the Organizing Institute. The other organizing powerhouse, the SEIU, was probably its biggest user. Remember that in Sweeney’s campaign against Donahue, they bid up the organization budget by a factor of 10. A chunk of this money was supposed to go to the Institute.

Fast forward to present day: Sweeney is weak, the AFL is hemorrhaging members. Stern, et al make a run at him, criticizing him for not organizing enough. Sweeney charges that darn it, he is organizing enough, in fact he and henchman Bob Welsh (who tried repeatedly to kill the Institute since it was a Donahue creation, according to a disgruntled staffer) have promised to spend lots on organizing. Oh, and did we mention that one of Sweeney’s first acts as President was firing Bensginer, the head of the Institute? Apparently, he was having too much success, taking resources away from Sweeney’s focus on, as he said, “winning back the House for the Democrats.” Maybe he should’ve stuck with organizing.

So why did John Sweeney kill the Organizing Institute? Sure, he might say it still exists in much the same way the USS Arizona exists in Pearl Harbor. Gone are the secretaries, the recruiters, the three-day training weekends, the field internships, the apprenticeships, the outreach to college campuses, etc. Sources inside the AFL-CIO are grumbling that for a guy who was supposedly so hell-bent on organizing, he sure picked a funny way to show it.

The real problem, the real truth here is what the dissidents knew all along, i.e., that Sweeney has no interest in organizing. He is much more interested in putting money down the political rat hole. He can make all the speeches, institute all the five year plans and re-orgs that he wants, but at the end of the day organizing is foreign to him, just ain’t a priority. As long as it stays a back burner issues, he’ll continue to lay off staff and watch his once-great federation continue to shrink.