LaborTalk - September 11, 2006

A Conspiracy of Silence to Suppress
One of Labor’s Worst Scandals

By Harry Kelber
Editor, The Labor Educator

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney can’t deny that he received hundreds of thousands of dollars over a 13-year period after he left his post as president of Local 32B-32J, a janitors’ local union, in 1981 to become president of the parent Service Employees International Union, where he earned an annual six-figure salary at the same time. The evidence of his huge and extensive “double dipping” is available in the records of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Sweeney refuses to explain how he found time from his paid duties as SEIU president to provide services to Local 32B-32J that was worth as much as $70,000 a year. Even in the nine of the 13 years that the local was not involved in negotiating its citywide contracts, Sweeney made sure he collected his annual tribute. Nor will Sweeney discuss his private compact with Gus Bevona, president of 32B-32J, that enabled both of them to profit so handsomely. (Sweeney’s total take from the local was at least $449,642.)

Sweeney has always used the strategy of silence against critics, waiting for the criticism to die down. It remains to be seen whether it will work this time where the facts so clearly incriminate him of wrongdoing.

To put it bluntly, Sweeney’s misdeeds represent one of the worst, if not the worst, labor scandals since the founding of the AFL-CIO in 1955. If there are any labor leaders or union members who feel that Sweeney is entitled to the extra income, let them step forward and make the case publicly.

Suppressing the Sweeney Scandal with Silence

Information about the scandal has been deliberately suppressed and drowned in silence, as though it never happened, in order to keep Sweeney’s reputation safe and pure. Not one of the Web sites of the AFL-CIO’s 53 international unions or those of the seven unions of Change-to-Win has mentioned the story. No national labor leader has had anything to say about it. All AFL-CIO Executive Council members have been characteristically mute. Not a single union publication has dared to print the story or offer a comment, including the progressive Labor Notes. Highly-respected labor activists have remained embarrassingly silent

This blatant cover-up of Sweeney’s misdeeds explains why corrupt practices in many forms flourish within the labor movement. It accounts for the growing cynicism within unions and labor’s loss of public esteem. We have developed a culture of benign tolerance toward corruption and, in the Sweeney case, even giving it our protection.

When Is the Right Time to Fight Corruption?

A couple of sideline pundits have sneered at the Sweeney story as “old news.” But it is news that was never reported in any union publication. Aren’t union members entitled to hear the story for the first time?

Why break the story on Labor Day, people may ask? Because it was probably the best day to catch the attention of union members. Even so, the Sweeney story could not overcome the intimidating efforts by top labor leaders to suppress it.

Some say that Sweeney’s payoff deal with Bevona at Local 32B-32J was morally wrong, but it was legal. (It’s still an open question whether or not it was legal, especially because of the unusual nature of the deal.) But is this the behavior we should expect from a union leader who was aspiring to become the chief spokesman of the labor movement?

Some speculate that publication of the scandal will have a disastrous effect on labor’s efforts in the 2006 elections. But what if the AFL-CIO Executive Council summoned a meeting of the Ethical Practices Committee and passed judgment on the Sweeney case, demonstrating that organized labor can clean its own house? And what if Sweeney decided to apologize and return his ill-gotten gains to the Local 32B-32J treasury? (Incidentally, Sweeney is one of the least effective union leaders in Washington. His role and influence in the 2000 and 2004 elections were minimal.)

There will always be some current excuse for inaction against corruption, and corrupt labor leaders know how to exploit them. They are adept at using the “labor unity” card to shield themselves from “disruptive” attacks by reformers. They insist that any threat to their power weakens the union and helps the bosses. Those arguments are at the heart of the Sweeney defense.

However, the strategy of silence won’t work. The genie is out of the bottle. The truth about Sweeney’s immoral and greedy behavior will surface and spread. What happens next is hard to foretell. Those who believe in honest unionism have a lot to think about.

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