WASHINGTON -- The bolt in Chicago Monday from the AFL-CIO by the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) reflects a long-building reaction to John Sweeney's plans a decade ago when he muscled his way into the labor federation presidency. He wanted to restore union power through politics. His project was a total failure, and the AFL-CIO is in ruins 50 years after its creation.
The scenario of the breakup was accurately laid out to me by Teamsters sources nearly a year ago. Sweeney would be offered a deal he could not accept. To keep the two big unions in the federation, Sweeney would have had to agree to a six-month tenure as president and a sharp reduction in the share of union dues to the AFL-CIO. The $10 million a year each saved by the Teamsters and the SEIU means money that has gone into Democratic coffers will be used for organizing.
That's why Democratic strategists wring their hands, fearful that the financial drought caused by the events in Chicago will undermine the party in the 2006 midterm elections. But James P. Hoffa of the Teamsters and Andrew Stern of the SEIU have rejected organized labor's political illusion. They may not know how to cure what ails the nation's unions, but they cannot buy Sweeney's notion that salvation lies in electing Democratic politicians.
When lifetime union bureaucrat Sweeney became president Oct. 25, 1995, in the AFL-CIO's first contested election for president, he threatened civil disobedience and other militant tactics "if necessary," but that was not what he really had in mind. It soon became clear he planned a massive effort for the Democrats and labor to regain control of the whole federal government that had been lost when Republicans won control of Congress.
Sweeney's political illusion was that the conjunction of Democratic control of the Senate, House and presidency would somehow restore labor's health (though that alignment was not therapeutic when it existed during Bill Clinton's first two years as president). In any event, pouring labor money into Democratic coffers proved an absolute failure, climaxed by Republican victories in 2000, 2002 and 2004.
Stern's distance from Sweeney's emphasis on politics was indicated by one of the few surprises at last summer's Democratic national convention in Boston. In an interview with The Washington Post, Stern said, "I don't know if" the movement to reform labor "would survive with a Democratic president." Although Stern backtracked after the predictable furor broke, he had indicated how unimportant John Kerry was in his grand design.