WASHINGTON — AFL-CIO President John Sweeney pledged Monday to do everything he can to hold the labor federation together amid a rift with some of the biggest unions in the country.
“Only our enemies are cheering” for divisions in the labor movement, Sweeney said as union leaders representing more than 60 percent of the AFL-CIO’s 13 million members lined up in favor of his re-election.
“The millions of workers who need us don’t need to see the house of labor divided,” Sweeney said.
At a news conference, Sweeney said the federation will continue a conversation with the five unions opposing him.
Those unions, including the AFL-CIO’s largest, the Service Employees International Union, blame Sweeney’s 10-year tenure for declining union membership and fewer worker protections.
Union membership has been on a downward slide for 50 years, now representing 12.5 percent of all U.S. workers. The private sector union membership level is 8 percent. A half-century ago, one-third of workers in the private sector belonged to unions.
The 1.8 million-member SEIU wants the federation to cut its budget by more than 50 percent and use the savings to increase organizing by its member unions.
The SEIU, once headed by Sweeney, is threatening to leave the AFL-CIO, along with the United Food and Commercial Workers and Unite Here, which represents employees in the hotel and restaurant industries and textile manufacturing. The Teamsters board will vote in July on whether to give President James Hoffa authority to disaffiliate.
The five dissident unions formed an alliance last week they call the Change to Win Coalition. The other participant is the Laborers International Union.
The AFL-CIO laid off 167 employees recently as part of Sweeney’s plan to increase spending on union membership drives, a move his critics called too little, too late.
Flanking Sweeney, his supporters expressed the hope that a healthy discussion will help clarify the future course of organized labor.
“At the end of that debate, we should be stronger, not weaker,” Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America, said.
Sweeney has focused on political action over the years, a push reflected in an increase in union households as a percentage of voters.
Voters from union households represented 26 percent of the overall vote in 2000, compared with 23 percent in 1996 and 19 percent in 1992.
The complaining unions say the AFL-CIO has wasted time and money on politics and has not done enough to combat the steady decline in union membership.
Sweeney faces re-election at the federation’s convention in July in Chicago, where he is expected to win another four-year term.