2 once-close labor leaders take diverging paths

SEIU chief Stern takes his union out of AFL-CIO, headed by Sweeney

July 27, 2005|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

John J. Sweeney and Andrew L. Stern emerged as leaders of organized labor's fastest-growing union. The first was from an older generation, known for his consensus-style leadership. The second has a reputation of being a risk-taker.

When Sweeney was president of the Service Employees International Union, he hired Stern and the two worked closely for about a decade as they tried to bolster the country's labor movement. Stern, 54, has since become president of the fast-growing SEIU. And Sweeney, 71, heads organized labor's umbrella organization, the AFL-CIO.

This week, though, Stern's union joined the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and broke from the AFL-CIO to form a competing coalition, the most divisive move to hit organized labor since the 1930s. Other unions are expected to follow.

Stern and others complain that Sweeney's organization is mired in the past and has failed to stem sliding union membership while American workers are in crisis. Their new group - 3.2 million of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members - said it plans to focus more on growth in its ranks.

For two men who had long walked the same path, this public breakup shows the leadership differences between what experts describe as Sweeney's cautious style and Stern's impatience.

"John Sweeney, when he was at the SEIU, brought in a lot of creative, younger, more radical labor unionists and put them into positions of authority because he felt the union needed a shake-up, needed new ideas ... and Andy Stern was one of those people who he valued," said Richard Hurd, a professor of labor studies at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

The two didn't always see eye to eye, Hurd said, "but they had a very good relationship, there's no doubt about that, and there was a lot of mutual respect." And once he became president of SEIU, Stern began pushing the AFL-CIO to adopt more aggressive policies on union organizing, Hurd said.

At the SEIU, Stern has been building on the ideas that Sweeney developed, said Jarol B. Manheim, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University who has written about labor strategies. But Sweeney's role of compromiser at the AFL-CIO, "and his low-key style hasn't been enough to stir passions within the movement, even though he's made some organizational changes and strategic changes that were in line with the organization 10 years ago when he was first elected," Manheim said.

Union membership has declined from 20 percent of the nation's work force in 1983 to 12.5 percent as of last year. Manheim suspects that Stern and other leaders felt that "time has run out for business as usual."

"I don't think John Sweeney's a bad leader," said Bob Moore, president of the SEIU Maryland/ DC State Council and the union's international vice president. "I love John Sweeney, but the direction had to change."

Moore, who has been part of the SEIU under the leadership of both Sweeney and Stern, said he doesn't see the SEIU decision to leave the AFL-CIO as divisive. Instead, he and other union leaders are hoping it will turn the labor movement around.

Stern has made some moves to reform SEIU internally, Moore said. Some local unions have merged, he said, and the union spends 50 percent of its budget on increasing membership.

The departure is an opportunity, Moore said, "for us to be able to do something different and get some of our partners in this coalition to do some things differently, to concentrate on organizing in some core industries."

If each union dominated the industry it focused on, organized labor could set wages and working conditions in those sectors, experts said. But with a changing economy and global work force, they said, that can't always work.

"It's one thing if you're doing that with janitors; it's another if you're doing it with steel workers who are in a globally competitive industry," said John Jordan, president of Principor Communications and a former labor strategist and organizer who has worked with Sweeney and Stern.

In Maryland, for instance, the United Steelworkers of America represent employees at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and the Good Humor/Breyers ice cream plant in Hagerstown.

Sweeney and his supporters have said that the two unions' decision to bolt the AFL-CIO will be damaging to organized labor, weakening its strength.

"President Sweeney is a consensus builder," said Stewart Acuff, organizing director of the AFL-CIO. "He understands how to and works hard at moving an entire institution, and that requires a strong will and a great degree of patience."

But experts said those leaving to form the coalition were running out of patience.

"Sweeney is of a generation where it's really about building consensus," Jordan said. "There really is this idea among these older labor leaders, they get in a room and they hash it out and they negotiate. Whereas Stern's style is not to negotiate, it's really to set out what he wants and expect people to fall in behind him."

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