The president of the nation's largest union on Wednesday called for major reforms in the AFL-CIO and suggested that he would pull out of the federation if the changes weren't quickly adopted.
"We have spent too much time writing too many reports with too many recommendations that in the end the leaders did not have the courage to adopt," said Andrew Stern, president of the 1.7-million-member Service Employees International Union.
Stern, an outspoken proponent for a corporate-style consolidation in the labor movement, maintains that the number of national unions should be cut from about 60 to fewer than 20 and that each should be limited to members in its sector, such as healthcare or construction. That would make each union stronger, he argues, allowing it to bargain more effectively.
Most labor leaders agree that unions are in crisis after years of declining membership and that they must change to survive. Organized labor represents fewer than 13% of all workers, compared with a third when the AFL-CIO was created about 50 years ago as an umbrella organization.
Not all agree with Stern's ideas, however, and some privately fume at what they view as his aggressive approach.
Stern's threat came at a meeting Wednesday of about 50 national union presidents, called by AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney to review labor's efforts during the presidential campaign.
Stern came armed with a 10-point proposal for change, which he released to reporters before the meeting began. In addition to union consolidation, he called for the AFL-CIO to return half of all dues to unions to fund aggressive organizing drives. And he said the federation should set aside about $25 million -- out of its $118-million annual budget -- for an effort to organize Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
A person at the meeting who asked not to be named said some attendees considered the plan and its public airing to be "quite presumptuous," and that Stern's actions could further alienate him from other union leaders. Already, the 700,000-member International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers has complained about what it considers to be Stern's heavy-handed approach and threatened to pull out of the federation if he or his allies took control of it.
Sweeney assigned a federation committee to review the restructuring proposals, along with ideas from other affiliated unions. He said the issue would be on the table when the union presidents next meet in February in Los Angeles.
As the head of a voluntary federation with many strong-willed, independent members, Sweeney is limited in his ability to force radical change, but he said the AFL-CIO was already doing some things on Stern's list.
For instance, he said, it has a Wal-Mart task force investigating ways to organize the adamantly nonunion retailer. Sweeney also recently discussed possible restructuring with the presidents of several large unions, although Stern was not among them, said a federation official.
Stern, a fiery Ivy League-educated leader who has steered his union through success in organizing janitors, healthcare workers and others, said that if the AFL-CIO didn't take action at its February meeting, the SEIU might leave to "build something stronger."
He said an internal union committee was already considering that option. "We are reviewing what are the implications of our leaving, what kind of agreement would we have [with the AFL-CIO], and who else would be with us," Stern told reporters after the meeting.
Taking 1.7 million members out of the 13-million-member AFL-CIO would have a deep financial effect, but the larger hit could be psychological. As a fast-growing union whose members are in occupations that can't easily be shipped overseas, it is one of the brightest lights in organized labor.
The SEIU wouldn't be alone in leaving the federation. Three years ago, Doug McCarron, president of the International Brotherhood of Carpenters, pulled his union out in a similar disagreement over direction and structure.
Some speculate that Stern has decided to leave and is now merely laying the groundwork.
"Just talking about it publicly indicates that things are pretty far along the track," said John Jordon, a public relations consultant who spent much of his career in labor.