Labor's Voice for Change (2) January 8, 2009

Sweeney Group’s Bloodless Coup in 1997
Helped It Win Three Sham Re-Elections

By Harry Kelber

Immediately after winning the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995, John Sweeney and his allies on the Executive Council developed a strategy to expand their control over the labor federation and avoid any possible challenge to them in a future election.

It was a daring scheme, so far-reaching that it had to be kept from the union members lest it be greeted with a storm of opposition. But the Sweeney plotters managed to keep it leak-proof, right up to the 1997 convention. It wasn’t mentioned anywhere within the labor movement. Not a word about it appeared in any labor publication. The media, including the labor press, were totally unaware of it.

But on Monday, September 22, 1997, the opening day of the convention in Pittsburgh, the delegates for the first time heard the startling news: AFL-CIO leaders were proposing to increase their term of office from two years to four years, and that the expanded tenure would apply immediately to them, as the elected officers.

The constitutional amendment for a four-year term of office was sandwiched in among relatively innocuous resolutions to distract the delegates’ attention. It was passed without debate by voice vote, in clear violation of the AFL-CIO Constitution that requires the approval of at least two-thirds of the convention delegates. It was approved as a substitute to another amendment, all within three minutes. Many of the delegates were outside the convention hall, unaware of what was happening. (I was in the hall at the time and witnessed the tricky methods used by the Sweeney people to get the amendment approved.)

Sweeney Is Not a Labor Leader for the 21st Century

We might be less outraged at Sweeney’s undemocratic behavior if he were an articulate and convincing defender of the rights of working people, and if he could win over television and radio audiences about the important role that unions play in American life. Unfortunately, Sweeney has none of these attributes.. He is a dull, monotonous, humorless speaker who rarely has anything original or memorable to say on talk shows, press interviews or on any of the infrequent times he appears publicly.

Sweeney has been president of the AFL-CIO for 12 years, during which union membership has continued to decline and labor’s bargaining strength has been diminished by concessions to employers. It was on his watch that the split in labor’s ranks occurred.

Sweeney has little contact with the rank-and-file, except at those few photo-op rallies, where he appears, wearing a baseball cap and a union-made windbreaker jacket to make his standard speech of AFL-CIO support, He is not a popular or inspiring figure for the rank-and-file.

Early in his presidency, Sweeney published a book (not written by him)) with the exciting title, “America Needs a Raise.” But he offered no realistic strategy for getting that raise, while wages continued to remain stagnant for most working people.

Sweeney was one of more than 20 current and retired labor leaders who was involved in the biggest labor scandal in decades. As directors of the Union Labor Life Insurance Company (ULLICO), they used insider stock information to make a total of more than $6.5 million in profits in 1999 and 2000.

Although Sweeney did not profit personally, he went along with the scheme and even voted to give his pals five more months to continue their profitable stock manipulations. Sweeney resigned from ULLICO after the scandal became public.

Although the union leaders who participated in the scandal faced investigation by both the Labor and Justice Departments, they were never tried before the AFL-CIO Ethical Practices Committee They did not apologize for their misdeeds and were never rebuked by the Executive Council, on which several of them continued to serve.

No matter how poorly he performs, Sweeney feels no need to be accountable to the union membership. Why should he bother to respond to critics who complain about his lackluster leadership? Union members don’t elect him; top national labor leaders do. They are the ones he must cater to in order to ensure his “job security.”

So how have Sweeney and his allies on the Executive Council been able to win three consecutive re-elections without having to face an opposition candidate? Will they be able to do it a fourth time at the 2009 convention? And can they be stopped?

That will be the subject of “Labor’s Voice for Change (3)”, which will be posted Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009.