The Weekly Standard October 21, 1996
Copyright 1996 The Weekly Standard
The Weekly Standard
October 21, 1996
Vol. 2, No. 6; Pg.
JOHN SWEENEY AND
THE STATE OF HIS UNION
By Matt Labash
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
But even if they eventually eschew the difficult vocation of union
organizing, the youngsters had a swell time. They got to watch
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,
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
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.
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 $
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
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
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.'"