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The Weekly Standard October 21, 1996

 
Copyright 1996 The Weekly Standard  
The Weekly Standard

October 21, 1996

SECTION: Vol. 2, No. 6; Pg. 20

LENGTH: 4186 words

HEADLINE: JOHN SWEENEY AND THE STATE OF HIS UNION

BYLINE: By Matt Labash

BODY:
A Year ago, John Sweeney swept away the forces of Lane Kirkland to become president of the AFL-CIO. His triumph was hailed in the media as reinvigorating the labor movement with a breath of go-go progressive air.

Sweeney soon announced the change of a decadesold ritual, the winter executive-council meeting (known by union wags as "the beaching of the whales" ). This is where labor bosses with pocked slabs of fat cushioning what used to be their obliques smoke fine cigars under Bal Harbour cabanas, displaying to the average $ 30,000-a-year pipefitter how fiscally responsible they are with his membership dues. The image-conscious Sweeney decided that no longer would the meeting be held at the four-star, $ 250-plusa-night Bal Harbour Sheraton; instead, it would be held at the four-star, $ 200-plus-a-night Regal Biltmore in Los Angeles. (Although the Paris apartment and the corporate jet have stayed.)

Furthermore, Sweeney would beef up the federation's organizing apparatus with a $ 20 million budget, ten times the previous amount. And "Union Summer" interns would stalk the field with real organizers, getting a taste of strikes, recruitment -- even violence.

In Watsonville, California, strawberry workers balked at an aggressive organizing campaign by the United Farm Workers (in conjunction with the AFLCIO, not itself a union but a federation of 78 unions). Frustrated at their lack of progress, organizers goaded "exploited" Hispanic field hands, even calling them "mother -- " and "son of a bitch," according to a sheriff's report. This sparked a fight, and later some 4,000 of the workers and their families turned out for a protest against the union's efforts, which, if successful, would have taken 2 percent of the workers' paychecks and kicked a portion of it over to Sweeney's AFL-CIO (which would have spent it to recruit even more workers unwilling to be organized). This did not stop Sweeney from showing up in Fresno -- HUD secretary Henry Cisneros at his side -- to avow, " If we don't grow in big numbers, we cannot survive."

Thus does today's AFL-CIO try to arrest the steep decline of the movement. In the mid-1950s, 34.7 percent of the national work force was unionized; that figure is now down to 14.6 percent. And Sweeney's highly touted measures serve mainly to reveal the growing gap between leadership and rank and file. His agenda bears a strong resemblance to the contemporary civil-rights movement in that it constantly invokes a glorious past (fighting for the 40- hour week, the minimum wage) to perfume a sorry present. He has increased ties to far-left groups and undertaken a costly, polarizing political campaign -- all the while honoring a long union tradition of corruption.

The differences between Sweeney and Kirkland are many and pronounced. Kirkland was an intellectual, obsessed with foreign policy, who presided over a flaccid bureaucracy and sometimes laid French on reporters (if he deigned to talk to them at all). Sweeney, born in the Bronx to Irish immigrants, exudes the common touch. Says Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican and a longtime acquaintance, "He's from the activist, Catholic Workers Union/Dorothy Day school. Labor is so intertwined with his Catholicism that he almost treats it as a religion."

Yet Sweeney has never worn his collar terribly blue. He majored in economics at Iona College in New Rochelle and then did a stint at IBM. Later, he signed up as a researcher for the lady garment workers. Before his AFL-CIO victory, he had risen to the presidency of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Union insiders say that Sweeney was a natural choice to challenge the federation establishment. He had allies in several quarters, including Gerald McEntee, boss of AFSCME, the powerful public-employees union, and Richard Trumka, then-president of the United Mine Workers, who represented the Sweeney insurgency's hard-left wing. (Trumka is now Sweeney's second-in- command, and many say that he will succeed him.)

McEntee, the architect of the coup, would by himself have proven unpalatable to the more conservative building-trade unions. But he and his like symbolize the future of the movement, as 42 percent of union members are now public employees. Only slightly more than one in ten private-sector workers belongs to a union. Says an AFL-CIO source, "The public sector is taking over, but Sweeney is their front man, an old-guard type. The trades and the manufacturing unions think of them as Johnnies-come-lately, and they recognize them as having different impulses, which is to make everybody a public-sector employee."

At the SEIU, Sweeney solidified his leftist credentials through anti- industry, anti-Republican jihads, ranging from the harassment of corporations to the blockade of Washington traffic in his notorious "Justice for Janitors" campaign. Not that Sweeney is without appeal to the pomade-and-pinkie-ring set. He has never been directly linked to organized crime, but not so his old local, SEIU 32B-J. As New York magazine's Jeffrey Goldberg recently reported, a top FBI informant has identified the local as Genovese-controlled. Says a former labor-rackets investigator in New York, "The history of that local as something created by Lucky Luciano is well documented. Tom Dewey dealt with it -- and the local has never changed." Sweeney remained on the payroll of the local (now headed by his handpicked successor, Gus Bevona) while serving as International president. (This is known as "double-dipping" and is regarded as an unsavory practice by ethical labor leaders, of whom historically there has not been a surplus.)

In Sweeney's anti-Kirkland coalition were men like Ron Carey of the Teamsters and Arthur Coia of the Laborers International Union -- both of whom have been investigated for organized-crime connections. Sources say that this was no coincidence. "Guys like Trumka [the Left's favorite] can't get the building trades, the mob unions, the Coias," says one. Adds another, "Picking Sweeney is a signal. The fact that he lived with Bevona and had his hand in the cookie jar makes it clear to people like Coia that, hey -- we may be talking revolution in the streets, but we ain't talking about cleaning up unions."

So, Sweeney made the perfect hybrid transitional candidate: acceptable to old-line Catholic unions, to left-leaning public-sector unions, and to those in between.

The hallmark of Sweeney's "New Voice" platform is his $ 35 million "voter- education" campaign. He called for a special convention last March -- the first of its kind since the AFL and the CIO merged -- at which a rubber-stamp vote plucked the $ 35 mil out of membership dues (whether the members objected or not). The money has since been used to wage war on Republicans, though in the guise of "issue advocacy," as the Federal Election Commission forbids such organizations to campaign for specific candidates. Sweeney's " voter education" has consisted primarily of attack ads against 75 Republican incumbents and the placement of ground troops in districts where the GOP is considered vulnerable.

And the effort is not just a play for a more sympathetic Congress; it is a p.r. campaign and a membership drive for a desperate movement. "These guys are as interested in touting their clout as they are in the election," says a former AFL-CIO official. "Sweeney and McEntee are interested in showing the rank and file that they're doing something."

That something is not insignificant. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the average House loser in 1994 spent $ 238,715. Sweeney's $ 35 million when allotted 75 ways comes out to $ 466,000 per Democratic challenger, which frees up those candidates' own war chests for other expenses. And this is not taking into account labor's estimated $ 300 million- $ 500 million in unreported in-kind expenditures.

Unsurprisingly, Republicans and their allies are screaming, particularly about a 1988 Supreme Court decision that entitles union members to recoup dues used for political purposes. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund claims that it has received hundreds of phone calls from annoyed unionists and that these could result in as many as 100 lawsuits.

Sweeney, for his part, treats dissent with a chuckle. "What do workers want of their unions?" he asks. "They want us to be a bigger force, to fiercely champion their values and their interests, independent of party or candidate" -- though independence is hardly his strong suit. He addressed the Democratic convention as "my brothers and sisters" -- perhaps because 800 of the delegates were AFL-CIO members -- and sat in Hillary Clinton's box.

About Republican complaints to the FEC, he said, "Our goal is to educate our members to judge candidates by their positions on the issues, not by whether they are Democrats or Republicans." Strange, then, that he is sending out a million pieces of political mail against Republicans, followed up by a half-million phone calls; that his old union, the SEIU, is shutting down for two weeks to send "volunteers" to get out the vote; and that he held a secret "candidate seminar" in July exclusively for Democrats, afterward refusing to release a list of attendees to the Chicago Tribune, which had discovered the meeting. Not a single Democrat has been targeted by his "issue advocacy"; reliably pro-labor Republicans like Buffalo's Jack Quinn (anti-NAFTA, pro- minimum-wage hike, etc.) are on the hit list. And most of Sweeney's TV spots have been produced by Frank Greer, chief of the official ad agency for Clinton/Gore '92.

Some of the ads disingenuously scare voters into thinking that Republicans are out to destroy Medicare. The Republican National Committee has squawked so loudly about this and other distortions that at least 24 stations have refused to run the ads or have pulled them, in some cases offering free response time. Even CNN labeled the spots "dishonest."

Says Peter King, "If the Democrats take back the Congress, Sweeney could well be one of the two or three most powerful people in the country. If they don't, he's really hurt organized labor," because he has totally alienated the GOP. "If he'd been more of an appeaser to pro-labor Republicans, we wouldn't get drilled by [House speaker] Newt [Gingrich] for supporting labor. But now he can just say, 'Why are you stupid bastards messing around with them? They're just a Democratic annex.'"

Gingrich would have a point. Steve Rosenthal, Sweeney's political director, was an official of the Democratic National Committee and a deputy in Robert Reich's Labor Department. Amy Chapman, now a Clinton/Gore reelection ace, ran Sweeney's AFL-CIO campaign last year. Gerri Palast, a Labor Department assistant secretary, worked for both AFSCME and the SEIU. And Karen Nussbaum, who served under Sweeney at the SEIU and now heads the AFL-CIO's spanking new Working Women's Department, also worked for Reich.

Sweeney himself has a personal connection or two: He was a national health- care adviser to Clinton in 1992, and his new book, America Needs a Raise, was ghosted by David Kusnet, Clinton's chief speechwriter from 1992-94.

And how do the unionized feel about this gung-ho Democracy? During his run for the top job, Sweeney said, "The problem with unions is that we are irrelevant to the vast majority of unorganized workers in this country." The organized workers might be feeling a tad left out themselves.

In March, the AFL-CIO's pollsters, Peter Hart Research Associates, did a survey showing that members supported Democrats over Republicans by a 25- point margin (which Sweeney used to justify the $ 35 million carve-out). But in April, Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, conducted his own survey, which showed 82 percent of members supporting a balanced budget, 87 percent strict welfare reform, and 78 percent a $ 500 tax credit (all opposed by Sweeney). Moreover, 44 percent described themselves as conservative, 18 percent as liberal. And a full 62 percent objected to the deployment of their dues against Republican candidates.

These findings were consistent with another Hart report, issued to the AFL- CIO leadership back in February and largely unknown. Hart discovered then that only 33 percent believed that a Republican Congress represented a change for the worse, and that only 37 percent believed their families had been better off under Democrats. (Forty-one percent said it made no difference.) Hart also warned that "members often suspect that their unions just automatically support Democrats in all cases"; that they do not "naturally turn to their union for political information"; and that, though more Democratic than the public at large, "they are not more liberal." In addition, "Members are five times more likely to feel that the [Democratic] Party is 'too liberal' (39 percent) than to think it is 'too conservative' (8 percent). "

Yet contrast Hart's recommendation -- "Unions must downplay partisan rhetoric" -- with the stylings of, say, Richard Trumka -- "I got two messages for you, Newt: Up yours and in your dreams." Says Hart: "Members state quite clearly that they do not want to be told for whom to vote." Says Sweeney: "We will reelect a president and elect a Democratic Congress committed to people who 'work hard and play by the rules.'"

If the Great Resuscitator is a little slack in heeding his membership, he is gangbusters for crafting new alliances and welcoming back old friends who had been estranged for decades. The SEIU has even coaxed open a new demographic: This summer, nude dancers at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco joined the union and proudly sported their local's button on their garter belts.

And the renaissance waters the academic grove. The days of labor-friendly writers like John Steinbeck, Malcolm Cowley, and Irving Howe may be long past, but at Columbia University this month, Sweeney launched what he hopes will be a series of teach-ins. Panelists included Katha Pollitt, Betty Friedan, and Cornel West, who discussed such sheet-metal-worker favorites as "Race and the Wages of Whiteness" and "Culture, Identity, and Class Politics."

Sweeney has also formed alliances with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the National Organization for Women, Michael Lerner's Summit on Ethics and Meaning, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Natural Law Party, the Rainbow Coalition, and Voters for Choice, to name a few.

This is the company that labor now keeps, as a new generation -- the one characterized by George Meany as a "dirty-necked and dirty-mouthed group of kooks" -- replaces the arteriosclerotic barons of yester-year. Sweeney has elevated so many red-diaper babies, activists-at-large, and other New Leftovers that a listing of them would be longer than the Port Huron alumni directory -- not that they're brand-new to labor.

"A lot of these people have been around 20 years," says one of the old guard. "They were activists in the '60s who knew the student movement wasn't going to support them in adulthood, so they needed another base of operations. The labor movement not only provides an institutional base to work from, but you also get that compulsory-dues money."

Consequently, the Sweeney administration looks like it was staffed by Saul Alinsky (whose Rules for Radicals is in fact on the Union Summer reading list). On the ascent are race-and-gender people like Nussbaum, once billed as "one of the most outstanding young feminist leaders in the country," and Bill Lucy, leader of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and a member of Michael Harrington's Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Sweeney, too, is a member of the DSA, as first reported by the Heritage Foundation's Kenneth Weinstein. According to its Internet home page, the DSA is the largest "openly socialist presence in American communities and politics." Alan Charney, the group's national director, says that Sweeney joined only last August, in a move that "clearly indicated that he wanted to break with some of the old political traditions of the AFL-CIO." Charney refers to the splintering of the Socialist party into the Social Democrats (SDUSA) and the DSA. Says an AFL-CIO source, "Kirkland was always at war with the DSA because they were the soft-on-commies, socialist wing of the Democratic party. Sweeney used to be on the Kirkland track and would identify himself with SDUSA types. But this switch is basically his way of saying, 'F - - you, Lane.'"

That's all right by Charney, who says, "On the progressive side, there's great hope that the union movement will be militant again and organize workers and lead a new progressive coalition for broader social justice."

Nor is he alone. The Communist party, which hasn't enjoyed serious influence in the labor movement since the CIO purges of the '50s, has given Sweeney's book rhapsodic reviews. George Meyers wrote in the People's Weekly World that Sweeney was elected "behind a militant program whose implementation can affect our entire nation for many years to come." And he rejoiced that the Communists were allowed to distribute literature at Sweeney's nominating convention and that "for the first time in 40 years, Communist trade unionists were elected delegates and spoke."

Sweeney's great, burning issue is that -- yes, America Needs a Raise. This simple observation leads to impassioned booklets that declare, "Hispanic Workers Need a Raise." Ditto Asian workers and black workers. Even "Laid Off Workers [who'd presumably settle for jobs] Need Jobs with Raises." The federation has established entire divisions to peddle such banalities, like the Working Women's Department headed by Nussbaum. "Most women work because of economic need," she said in one of her first press releases. (While men work for fun?)

Similarly vapid is the federation's Union Summer, the object of fawning media attention. ("It's Hip to Be Union," said Newsweek.) Last summer, college kids scrambled from fruit fields to catfish plants, getting their union feet wet. With $ 200-a-week stipends and free housing, this was an attempt to "inject new energy and life" into the AFL-CIO. One union official is somewhat scornful: "People who clean bedpans in hospitals are paying for socialist summer camp for the disaffected daughters of the upper middle class and graduates of Williams."

But even if they eventually eschew the difficult vocation of union organizing, the youngsters had a swell time. They got to watch Matewan, protested a wedding reception, and called for the eradication of the word " plantation" at southern hotels. Meanwhile, federation bulletins resembled giddy freshman diaries: "In Hilton Head, SC, the activists had some fun performing 'guerrilla theater,'" while in Denver, "activists produced a theater piece dressed as scab-lawyer vultures, complete with beaks and feather boas, and picked apart the benefits package of union workers."

And what about corruption, the perpetually inflamed heel of Big Labor? While president of the SEIU, Sweeney told Irish America, "The criticism in terms of corruption or anything like that, well, there's a few bad apples in every industry" -- and he happens to be friends with most of them.

Jack Joyce of the International Union of Bricklayers & Allied Craftsmen sits on the federation's executive council. He has spent about $ 2 million in membership dues on transportation. Not just any transportation, mind you, but, for example, a round trip on a private jet from his summer home in Maine to make a doctor's appointment in Baltimore.

Ron Carey of the Teamsters is also on the executive council. He is regarded as a reformer and is so soft that he even wants to remove the "Brotherhood" from "Brotherhood of Teamsters," on grounds of inclusiveness. But Teamsters trustees have inquired into their leaders' "unprecedented" payments for apartments and travel, even as the union has hiked dues and reduced out-of- work benefits.

Arthur Coia of the Laborers International Union is perhaps the reigning granddaddy of malfeasance. Not only does he occupy a place on Sweeney's council, his headquarters is right next to the federation's, a cement shoe's throw from the White House. He has made a comfortable living representing toxic-waste handlers and oil riggers, his booty including a red Ferrari, an ocean-front mansion in Rhode Island, and a home in Delray Beach. But in 1994, the Justice Department called him a "mob puppet," the Patriarca family of New England his Geppetto. The department's 212-page draft complaint said that Cola was party to extortion and raiding union funds and had "employed actual and threatened force, violence, and economic injury to create a climate of intimidation." But Justice nevertheless cut him what most believe is a sweetheart deal: As long as he rids the union of corruption -- which critics perceive as an excellent excuse for eliminating rivals -- he stays on at full salary. Since the complaint was filed, he has been a guest at the Clinton White House 24 times.

"What these guys want from politicians more than anything is no more clean- ups of unions," says a rackets investigator. "As soon as they get investigated, they go to the White House and say, 'I'm clean as a hound's tooth.' And the evidence is they've been in organized crime since the day they were born or they're stealing with both hands."

And what of Sweeney's successor at the old local? Union bosses love to advertise that their pay lags behind their corporate counterparts', but in 1995 Gus Bevona collected over $ 400,000 in multiple salaries. He and Sweeney appear to have worked out a double-dipping quid pro quo. According to 1995 disclosure forms filed with the Labor Department, Sweeney made $ 246,509 in salary last year. But until at least 1994, he drew a kind of annual allowance from his old local, topping out at nearly $ 80,000 in 1993 as an "executive advisor," a title created for him by Bevona. Likewise, Bevona is listed on the disclosure forms as receiving an additional $ 79,194 as a "vice president" of the International. (The average take of the other "vice presidents" was $ 32,091.)

More alarming, though, than any salary scheme is a story scantly covered outside the New York media: the strong-arming of a union dissident, an Ecuadorean immigrant, who questioned unethical leadership practices. Court records say that in February 1991, Carlos Guzman, a 20-year member of the Sweeney- and Bevona-ruled local, began circulating flyers to protest another dues increase and to call for a 50 percent reduction in officers' salaries.

When Bevona caught wind of it, he hired surveillance and ordered a private dick to monitor Guzman 16 hours a day. After the laborer discovered someone listening at his door, following his wife, and showing his picture to the neighbors, he concluded that he was being hunted by a hit man and requested a police escort out of his building.

Guzman went to the district attorney, while Bevona went to his joint executive board (of which Sweeney was a member). The board unanimously ratified the decision to spy on Guzman. Shop stewards even assaulted him outside a union meeting. (They were never disciplined.) Finally, in August 1995, Guzman was awarded $ 100,000 in damages by a federal court, and Sweeney, Bevona, and the boys were enjoined from further threatening Guzman and ordered to pay back the $ 19,343 in dues they had expended for surveillance.

Says one former AFL-CIO official, "This was a dues revolt against a corrupt, groaning, Teamsters-style double-salary structure in which Sweeney partook, and they hired private detectives to scare this poor bastard out of his wits."

John Sweeney calls his new AFL-CIO a "worker-based movement against greed," which "isn't about dividing people through fear, it's about bringing people together through compassion." So I figured I'd give the improved, "open and democratic," bottom-up system a whirl by trying to get the answers to a few basic questions, like: How much is Sweeney making? Is he still drawing an International salary or a Bevona-local salary? Why was Bevona's salary so much higher than the other vice-presidents'? These are easy questions and will be answered on disclosure forms in a few months, anyway (though law- enforcement sources tell me the accounting can get tricky).

I could not gain access to Sweeney. My numerous, repeated calls -- to the SEIU local, to the International, to the AFL-CIO -- yielded . . . nothing. All told, I talked to six different people. Nobody knew anything. Everybody was supposed to get back to me. No one ever did. "Most of these guys are very adept at covering their asses after the fact," offered one AFL-CIO source, explaining why I shouldn't have been surprised at union stonewalling. After all, he said, for all the talk of fresh air, of change, "It's still like the line in that Jack Nicholson movie -- 'It's only Chinatown.'"

 

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