Labor Leaders Seeking Political Unity

Still smarting from a public spat during the Democratic National Convention (search), labor leaders on Monday tried to shift attention to ousting President Bush.

An undercurrent of tension about the future of the labor movement remained at the AFL-CIO (search) executive council meeting here this week, though most union presidents pledged to stop bickering publicly.

Andy Stern, president of the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union (search), said at the convention two weeks ago that an effort to restructure organized labor could lose momentum under a Democratic administration.

Stern quickly drew fire for his comments and has since tried to explain that his goal is to strengthen organized labor, noting that his union is spending $65 million to help elect Kerry.

Frustrations over Stern's remarks, the latest of several he has made about the need for labor to change, were aired at a private meeting here during a "frank, open discussion," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney (search) in an interview.

The debate over the future of the labor movement now is "going to be less public," he said. "I think that everybody understands that we have to do this in a very thorough, internal way, and we have to include everyone in these discussions."

Sweeney said labor would conduct a thorough review of its structure, but not until after November's election. The labor umbrella organization is spending $44 million to turn out union household voters.

Stern was not available for an interview Monday. He and a handful of union presidents have formed the New Unity Partnership to press for a major restructuring of the AFL-CIO into broad, industry sectors as the federation turns 50 next year.

Some union leaders complain the group is grandstanding in an effort to wrangle the helm of the AFL-CIO from Sweeney when his term expires next summer. The critics argue that the public relations push for change needs to include the entire labor movement.

The partnership needs "to engage the rest of the labor movement in their debate," said Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists.

"Right now it seems to be a one-sided debate, one side speaking out," said Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists. Stern "is excluding by far the vast majority of the labor movement."