Triumphs for labor dulled by scandal AFL-CIO's Sweeney confident of growth despite Teamsters


PUEBLO, Colo. -- These should be glory days for John J. Sweeney, the AFL-CIO's president. His struggle to turn around the moribund union movement has produced labor's biggest successes in at least a decade.

But the warm afterglow of its most recent victories -- signing up 10,000 white-collar workers at U.S. Airways and humiliating President Clinton in the battle over fast-track trade authority -- has been dimmed by new troubles at the Teamsters' union.

In an interview, Sweeney says the Teamsters' scandal won't slow his high-profile effort to lead America's unions back to their roots, which is starting to produce the first faint stirrings in a generation of a labor revival.

"The real challenge for us is how do we keep that momentum going," he says, in a voice that bears more than a trace of a Bronx accent, "and get the Teamsters' election behind us."

Last week, a court-appointed monitor disqualified Ron Carey, a key Sweeney supporter, from running for re-election as Teamsters' president. The overseer found that Carey improperly funnelled more than $700,000 in union funds into his own campaign.

In a further setback for Sweeney, the federal monitor's report also accused three of his top advisers of raising money for the Teamsters' president in violation of union election rules.

Sweeney doesn't try to minimize the damage from the continuing corruption within the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the largest union in the labor federation.

"It is a blow. It's a blow personally," he says. "I don't like this whole thing. I don't like how our opponents are trying to take advantage of it."

Even though the Teamsters' investigation had produced three convictions last summer, the case did not prevent the AFL-CIO from getting Congress to block Clinton's fast-track trade initiative this month. Sweeney points to that as evidence the scandal will have little long-term impact.

If he is right, it won't be the first time. Since he took over as president in October 1995, the AFL-CIO has confounded skeptics by stopping a 20-year skid in its membership. With financial support from the labor federation, striking Teamsters won a highly publicized contract victory over United Parcel Service last summer.

Among Democrats in Congress, labor's clout has never been stronger. And rank-and-file workers are feeling a sense of progress for the first time in memory.

"He's great," says Rick Gonzalez, a 24-year veteran of the steel workers' union, as he cheered a Sweeney pep talk to 1,000 strikers outside the C F & I Steel mill in Pueblo, Colo. last weekend. "Labor is gaining a little bit. We're gaining now."

All-out membership push

The beefy, 63-year-old Sweeney looks every inch the old-line labor boss. When he addresses union crowds, he calls them "sisters and brothers." But his audacious goal for the AFL-CIO is similar to what many state-of-the-art capitalists are doing: refocusing their companies on their core business.

For labor, that means an all-out push to increase union membership nationwide and lead a broad, liberal social movement on behalf of poor and working-class Americans. Those objectives -- which Sweeney admits are years away from being met -- contrast with what unions have increasingly become: service organizations devoted to pursuing job grievances and tending to the personal needs of their members and retirees.

"The public has regarded the labor movement as a dinosaur, but I see that beginning to change," says Rick Hurd, director of labor studies at Cornell University's School of Industrial Relations. "Now people are seeing things happen. Unions are delivering something, and the general attitude is that the labor movement is alive."

Sweeney's ultimate target is to double the AFL-CIO's 12.9 million membership over the next 15 years. That seems almost inconceivable today, when union representation is at its lowest level since the 1930s.

Only one of every 10 employees in private business and just over one-third of the government work force belong to a union. Overall, less than 15 percent of the work force is unionized, down from 35 percent at its peak in the 1950s.

Last year, Sweeney gambled $35 million on a failed effort to help Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives. But there have been triumphs, too: an increase in the minimum wage and major organizing victories, including unionizing 35,000 state workers in Maryland and 5,000 mechanics at Continental Airlines.

The AFL-CIO is leading a major effort in booming Las Vegas, Nev., to organize construction workers and service employees at hotels and casinos. Among the disappointments: attempts to unionize textile workers in North Carolina and poultry workers across the South, where resistance to labor has historically been high.

"We've been heavily focused on the South," he says. "And it's not been easy."

Longtime labor leader

A grandfatherly figure who wears a business suit on the picket line and suspenders around the office, John Jude Sweeney seems an unlikely choice to lead organized labor into the 21st century. But behind his nonthreatening appearance there's a shrewd strategic mind and a secure personality that has attracted a cadre of bright, idealistic aides to AFL-CIO headquarters across from the White House.

The son of Irish immigrants -- his father drove a bus and his mother was a maid -- Sweeney grew up in a union household. The first labor leader he saw was Michael Quill, the fiery president of the New York Transport Workers Union. He was also deeply influenced by Catholic social teaching, according to David Kusnet, who co-wrote Sweeney's 1996 book, "America Needs a Raise."

During his 15 years as president of the Service Employees International Union, its membership nearly doubled. Sweeney's success in organizing workers in the service economy helped compensate for continuing losses in factory employment, one of the reasons that organized labor has steadily lost ground since union membership peaked in the 1950s.

His low-key personal manner -- he and his wife, Maureen, a former schoolteacher, live in a modest suburban house in Bethesda -- masks a militant streak that emerged during his years as president of the SEIU. In 1995, he helped block rush-hour traffic heading into Washington for several hours as part of a Justice for Janitors campaign, which helped bring union protection to 40,000 of the nation's lowest-paid workers.

Despite the renewed emphasis on organizing, the AFL-CIO under Sweeney is also employing some of the same state-of-the-art techniques used by business, including public opinion polling, focus groups and electronic advertising. In August, the labor federation launched a multimillion-dollar TV ad campaign in Baltimore and three other cities, part of a larger, long-range, national effort aimed at improving labor's public image.

A fight in Pueblo, Colo.

Many of labor's weapons are at work in the strike at the C F & I mini-mill in Pueblo, near the Sangre de Cristo mountains, where 1,100 steelworkers went on strike in October in a contract dispute.

After the walkout began, the union began contacting major investors in Oregon Steel, the parent company, to pressure the company to settle. Meanwhile, 32 union sympathizers in San Francisco were arrested after a sit-in at Wells Fargo bank, a major lender to Oregon Steel.

Analyses of the strike's impact on the company have become part of the union's TV ad campaign to sway public opinion. In conversations with a reporter, rank-and-file mill workers, who make about $15 an hour, routinely rattle off precise financial data about the company, such as the plunging value of its stock since the strike began.

Last Sunday, when Sweeney came to town to address an outdoor rally, he drew loud cheers.

However, he seems a remote figure to some. "He's a strong leader," says Dave Tracy, a crane operator at the mill. But, he adds, "it's just like President Clinton to me. He's a figurehead."

"The longer you're in office the more vulnerable you are to criticism," Sweeney says. "I really have to rise above some of the things that are going on and do everything in my power to keep the spirits among the affiliates of the AFL-CIO focused on the program."

With only the barest hint of forced enthusiasm, he adds, "These are challenging times."

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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