WITH ORGANIZED LABOR withering away to what its leaders fear is near irrelevance, a conflict over its future direction has been building between AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and Andrew Stern, a onetime protégé who is threatening to bolt from the federation and take its largest union with him. Among the proposals put forward by Stern, president of the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union, is one that would forcibly merge dozens of unions, putting weaker ones out of existence, with the goal of consolidating the bargaining power of unions in key industries. Sweeney opposes the idea (though he says he would support any unions that decide to merge or fold voluntarily). It's just one of the potential sources of conflict at what promises to be a contentious meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council this week in Las Vegas.
The question for labor leaders is how to restore union influence in the workplace and in politics. Sweeney, 70, who was considered a reformer when he took the helm of the AFL-CIO a decade ago, has put far more union resources into political mobilization and has significantly increased union members' voter turnout. But the Democratic presidential candidates labor backed have twice been defeated in that time, and Republican majorities have grown in Congress as well. The only answer to regaining influence, Stern and other union leaders contend, is to increase union membership, which has continued to decline under Sweeney.
Sweeney last week endorsed one Stern idea: to give the unions back a share of their AFL-CIO dues so they can pour it into drives to recruit more members. Sweeney declined to say how large a rebate he would support, but a proposal, backed by the Teamsters, would require the federation to return $35 million--50% of its intake--to its member unions. The result would be a smaller budget, and presumably less political clout, for the AFL-CIO. A challenge to Sweeney's political clout may also be in the offing. Hotel workers' union president John W. Wilhelm, a Stern ally, is seen as a possible candidate to run against Sweeney at the federation's July convention. --By Karen Tumulty