CHICAGO – AFL-CIO (search) President John Sweeney (search), the center of a storm in the labor movement, was re-elected to a fourth term Wednesday — just days after the defection of two major unions that sought his ouster.
One of those unions — the Service Employees International Union (search) — was headed by Sweeney when he was first elected AFL-CIO president in 1995. It joined the Teamsters (search) in leaving the AFL-CIO on Monday.
Sweeney faced no opposition for the four-year term.
The dissident unions said Sweeney, 71, was elected on a platform of growth and change but has done too little to reverse the decades-long decline in union membership.
They also accused him of focusing more on building political clout for the group rather than on organizing efforts to recruit new union members. They said after 10 years in office, it was time for new ideas at the top.
Several labor leaders said the dissident groups had wanted Sweeney to announce that he was stepping down at the convention — or be re-elected with the intention of only serving a few months — and to endorse one of their preselected candidates to succeed him.
Instead, Sweeney took a defiant tone, calling the defections this week a "grievous insult" that could hurt workers already buffeted by the global economy and anti-union forces in Congress.
Sweeney will head a group that numbered 13 million before the Teamsters and SEIU took about 3.2 million workers with them. More departures are possible; the Teamsters, SEIU and boycotting unions belonged to a seven-member group called the Change to Win Coalition.
In reaction to Sweeney's re-election, spokespeople for the coalition and the Teamsters issued short statements wishing him and the AFL-CIO well.
"We are moving forward with our plans to strengthen the labor movement," said Leigh Strope, a Teamsters spokeswoman.
Sweeney's defenders pointed to a number of reforms enacted at this week's convention — some of which were similar to ones requested by the dissident unions.
A $22.5 million fund will be reserved for use by affiliates in organizing, and an effort is under way to bring greater diversity to leadership roles in the AFL-CIO. A number of new committees also will be created and organized by sector — such as around the health care industry — to help coordinate efforts on contracts and recruiting.
Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, praised Sweeney for leading by consensus. "He seeks out ideas. He is open to debate. He's willing to listen to creativity, innovativeness, different positions. And then he has the ability to make the tough decisions," Schaitberger said.