The Nation


November 25, 1996


Labor Pain


Robert Fitch, a former union organizer. is the author of The Assassination of New York

AMERICA NEEDS A RAISE. By John J. Sweeney. Houghton Mifflin. 167 pp. $18.95.

This year, quite suddenly, after nearly half a century of dormancy, the classic anti-Establishment cause has re-emerged on elite college campuses across the country: the cause of organized labor. Who could've imagined! It's been estimated that not so long ago, in the fattest years of the eighties, Ivy League Establishmentarianism waxed so thick that nearly 40 percent of all graduating Yale seniors applied for positions as investment bankers with just one firm.

Now in the leaner nineties, the pinch of reality has helped awaken a new student radicalism that risks "transgression" of more than academic boundaries. Small but significant numbers are caught up in the politics of solidarity: More than 3,500 people applied this year for Union Summer jobs paying $210 a week. Students have given impressive support to strikes of campus workers at Yale and Barnard. And in October, you could have mistaken Morningside Heights for Madison Square Garden, as thousands snaked across the Columbia campus to jam Low Library for "A Teach-In With the Labor Movement."

Without John Sweeney, the new A.F.L-C.I.O. president who sat on the dais that night, comfortably mixing with the bright lights of American liberalism-Richard Rorty, Betty Friedan, Patricia Williams and Cornel West-there would have been no overflow crowds, no campus movement, no Union Summer, no intoxicating sense of fresh possibilities. What drew the thousands that night and those who packed workshops the next day was the narrative of Sweeney's contested election a year ago against a tired labor establishment; his insistence that labor return to its roots and organize the unorganized once again; his repeated calls for a new dialogue between union leaders and liberal intellectuals; and, above all, his turn toward campus youth as a source of energy and inspiration.

Union members' concerns are extracted from focus groups, polling data and paid interviews by consultants and public-opinion specialists

But who is the hero of this hour, the stout man with the soft hands? Daniel Patrick Moynihan's jacket blurb for America Needs a Raise asserts that Sweeney, "with the audacity and diligence of FDR during the Hundred Days, has transformed the American labor movement." How so? And what will he do next? Convincing answers are not to be found in this book. While one chapter is a good economic primer-rehearsing the Economic Policy Institute's analysis of U.S. wage decline in terms of American management's "low road" strategy-America Needs a Raise is the sort of celebrity book the celebrity didn't write, blurbed by other celebrities who haven't read it, full of intimate stories about the lives of "little people" the celebrity probably never met.

In fact, Sweeney probably wouldn't know "Eddie Neace and his father, Roy," from Eddie Kennedy and his father, Joe. The same is true of David Kusnet, the real author who was principally responsible for writing America Needs a Raise. It's unlikely that either ghost or celebrity author ever had a human contact with any of the workers whose problems are so feelingly described. Union members' concerns are extracted from focus groups, polling data and paid interviews carried out by a battery of consultants, researchers and public opinion specialists like Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Stanley Greenberg (also President Clinton's pollster).

We are provided with a sprinkling of biographical data: for example, that Sweeney, like his two predecessors, George Meany and Tom Donahue, was born in the Bronx; that, as a boy, he accompanied his father to meetings of the Transport Workers Union where "Red" Mike Quill held forth; and that he put himself through college digging graves. But we find surprisingly little about his road to power. How did he wrestle the old guard to the ground and become A.F.L.-C.I.O. president? What about his longest, most crucial and controversial union affiliation-with New York City's Local 32B-321, the 70,000 member janitors' union mired in corruption. bossism, indictments, job-selling and secret collaboration with employers? How did he grow the Service Employees International Union (parent of 32B-32J)) from 625,000 to 1.1 million?

Under a picture of pinstriped Sweeney wearing a baseball cap, the jacket proclaims that in the past decade, "when the rest of the labor movement was in steep decline," the S.E.I.U. virtually doubled its membership. We're told this increase came about through organizing new members-remarkable, if true. Justice for Janitors, Sweeney's exemplary nationwide campaign to organize immigrant workers, did bring in 35,000 new members. Where did the other nearly half-million come from? From 1985 to 1995, the entire A.F.L.-C.I.O. organized only about a million workers. Sources at S.E.I.U. now claim that the union has organized only 200,000 members since 1985. Thus, the truth is that the S.E.I.U. grew overwhelmingly not by organizing but through mergers and "accretion"-i.e., the employer added employees, so the union grew, too.

Corruption, racism and warlord rule aren't minor flaws in an otherwise dynamic labor movement. They are structural features

When Sweeney rose to the S.E.I.U.'s International presidency, the man he left in charge of 32B-32J, "Greedy" Gus Bevona, became one of the nation's highest-paid local union leaders. But Bevona arranged for the election of Sweeney as his "executive adviser," paying him $400,000 over 13 years while he continued to draw his S.E.I.U. presidential salary. Sweeney's multiple salaries became an issue in last year's A.F.L.-C.I.O. election. Critics charged that the executive adviser job was just a sinecure. Sweeney protested that he earned his money-he attended meetings, he made decisions. And court papers confirm his claims. As a member of the 32B-32J executive board, Sweeney voted to hire detectives to tail union dissident Carlos Guzman and his wife. For sicking gumshoes on a critic, Sweeney along with each member of the executive board, was ordered by a federal appeals court to repay his share of the $19,000 in misused union funds.

Sweeney was involved. At 32B-32J's twenty-three-story headquarters, topped with Bevona's lavish penthouse apartment, there's a plaque in the hallway that Sweeney had to pass every time he went to a meeting. In the official history of 32B-32J, Sixty Years of Progress, he is pictured presenting this plaque to Greedy Gus for his role in "securing the Service Employees Center for Local 32B-32J." In fact. the union doesn't own the building. Members pay over $40 a square foot (more than double the market rate) to Edward Minskoff and Allan Silverman, who do own it. In the first twenty years of a ninety-nine-year renewable lease, the union pension funds will contribute $190 million to the coffers of Minskoff and Silverman. Who are they?

The employers. In 1989, when the deal was cut, Silverman owned Royal Prudential Services, a commercial cleaning business that employed hundreds of 32B-32J workers. It was a classic two-handed deal. On the one hand, Silverman was paying into the pension funds. On the other, the pension funds were feeding Silverman's bottom line. The Labor Department says it "can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation" into the matter. But where was Sweeney? (And where was he when dozens of union members' reports attesting to widespread job selling piled up at the Association for Union Democracy? Or when James McGorman, a 32B-32J business agent, pleaded guilty last October to charges that he sold a job to Louis Gonzales, a building superintendent who wore a wire for the Manhattan D.A.?)

Sweeney devotes only a few paragraphs in his 167-page book to the most important days of his life: the dealing, spinning and vote-wrangling in the suites of the New York Sheraton that led to his ascendancy as A.F.L.-C.I.O. chief. Yes, it was the "first contested election" in the federation's history. But contested by whom? Not the members. There are no direct elections for president. Effectively, the president is elected by the delegates of the seventy-eight affiliated unions-precious few of whom are elected by the members either.

No unelected union president was more decisive in Sweeney's election than Arthur Coia, president of the Laborers' Intentional Union of North America, who in November 1994 had been named in a 212-page complaint by the Clinton Justice Department as a tool of organized crime.

LIUNA comes across in the document as less a union of workers than a crooked conglomerate of regional crime families. But instead of ousting Coia as LIUNA president, as the Justice Department's complaint originally recommended, top officials negotiated a settlement that placed him in charge of the LIUNA cleanup. Since the agreement, perhaps coincidentally, Coia has raised $2 million in contributions to various Democratic pols.

Coia was thus particularly well placed to serve as the broker for a coalition of construction unions with a history of racial exclusion and mob domination as a means of suppressing dissent. The Coia coalition included the Painters and the Sheet Metal Workers. Altogether, Coia brokered nearly 750,000 votes-Sweeney's margin of victory.

In the bidding war for Coia's votes, Sweeney outbid the man who got him his job at 32B-32J, Thomas Donahue. Soon after the election, Sweeney gave Coia's cohorts seats on the A.F.L.-C.I.O. exec council. Unlike Donahue, Sweeney soft pedaled in his campaign the issue of corrupt practices. And he made Coia, notorious for his union's practice of raiding other unions in the name of organizing, head of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s organizing department.

Organizing is the centerpiece of Sweeney's strategy for reviving the labor movement. How's he doing? You might say it's too soon to tell. But if you allow yourself to be presented as the second coming of F.D.R. and his Hundred Days, you ought to have something to show for it. America Needs a Raise is silent on initial organizing results. When asked recently on NPR's Fresh Air how the campaign was doing, Sweeney evaded the question. The truth is, not good.

There has been a slight uptick in the total number organized compared with last year-one of the most dismal in organized labor history. But the percentage of elections won by unions, 47.5, would, if it holds steady for the entire year, represent a five year low. And the total number of representation petitions filed would represent a fifty-year low.

"Wait till next year, when we transfer our organizers from the '96 election campaign to organizing the workers," say labor officials. But there are several good reasons why Johnny can't organize. And won't.

Bad labor laws, strong employer resistance from the world's most powerful employing class and plain inattention on the part of the unions are the usual explanations offered for the failure to organize. But they're not the real reasons. The real reason is the structure of U.S. unions: the relations between members and leaders, and between lower and higher labor officials.

Those ruling at the local level and middle levels are frequently the officials Teamster president Ron Carey calls the "warlords". They operate within a system of A.F.L.-C.I.O. vassalage that may or may not include crime families. In return for an exclusive local franchise granted by the International, local warlords give back a portion of the dues they collect. Ultimately, their goal is keeping their six figure jobs and expanding their cash flow. Construction-union warlords don't organize-or admit blacks and women to apprenticeship programs-because organizing can upset local race-based fiefdoms. And it depletes rather than builds cash flow.

In unions not run by warlords, organizing is still, generally, a lose-lose situation. If you lose, you drop the costs of the campaign. If you win, you get small groups of low-paid workers whose dues won't offset the costs of servicing the contract. (Two decades of outsourcing, downsizing and de-industrialization have left a depleted ecology for organizers. They're forced down the food chain to target ever-smaller shops.) Because organizing doesn't pay, even those leading the organizing charge don't do it seriously. Sweeney put Coia in charge of organizing. But in 1995, a year Coia took in about $175 million in dues, only $700,000-less than one percent of revenue-went to organizing and collective bargaining activities. (The 1991 LIUNA convention cost $6 million.)

What about the $20 million Sweeney wants to spend on organizing? That will buy about 200 organizers nationwide. But it's a sum almost as paltry as the amount Coia's been spending. Sweeney's $20 million covers two years. With about 13 million members and average dues of $500 a year, it has been estimated that A.F.L.-C.I.O. unions take in $6 billion a year from their members. Sweeney recently announced that the federation will invest $100 million in a real estate project in San Francisco.

But can't great things grow from small beginnings? When the A.F.L.-C.I.O. seeks allies on the left, appoints radicals to high level staff jobs and positions itself for a great organizing leap, isn't it churlish to keep dwelling on corruption, racism and lack of democracy? Doesn't it play into the hands of capital? But corruption, racism and undemocratic, warlord rule aren't minor flaws in an otherwise dynamic labor movement. They are structural features of a dying order that must be changed if unions are to be, as Sweeney insists, "a movement and a mission, not a business or a bureaucracy."

The great recognition that's taken place this year on campuses-the "seismic click" that Betty Friedan heard at Low Library- is that only by releasing the potential of organized labor can the United States be changed. But the will to mobilize labor's potential doesn't rest at the top with the Sweeneys, who are products of the A.F.L-C.l.O. regime and a lifetime of deals to get where they are. We need to look to the base, toward those fighting to make the Sweeneys and Bevonas accountable, to those trying to bring the members into the life of the union. Fifty years ago, when unions looked to their membership for support, a single C.l.O. union, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, could mobilize not 200 but 5,000 organizers. "They had Union Summer for college students," one dissident 32B-32J janitor observed recently. "When are they going to have one for workers?"

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