CHICAGO – The delegates who re-elected AFL-CIO President John Sweeney (search) to a fourth term wore T-shirts that said "One Strong Voice for Worker's Rights" — but the labor group's unity remained in doubt after the defection of two key unions.
The Teamsters (search) and the Service Employees International Union had sought Sweeney's ouster and dropped out earlier this week when they didn't get it.
The loss was a serious blow to the AFL-CIO (search), but Sweeney said he felt it was important to run for anbecause of the important challenges facing the labor movement.
"I'm hopeful that over the next four years I'll be able to see through a lot of these changes," said Sweeney, who was re-elected without opposition Wednesday. "I'll also be working to convince these folks to come back — I'm not going to give up on that."
The dissident unions said Sweeney had done too little to reverse the decades-long decline in union membership and accused him of focusing more on building political clout than on efforts to recruit new members.
More departures are also possible, union leaders said. The Teamsters, SEIU and two other unions that boycotted the AFL-CIO convention belong to a seven-union group called the Change to Win Coalition.
Spokespeople for the coalition and the Teamsters issued short statements wishing Sweeney and the AFL-CIO well: "We are moving forward with our plans to strengthen the labor movement," said Leigh Strope, a Teamsters spokeswoman.
Sweeney talked Wednesday about an "ambitious blueprint" for the AFL-CIO that includes several reforms enacted at this week's convention, some similar to demands that had been made by the dissident unions.
The reforms include a $22.5 million fund for use by affiliates in organizing, and an effort 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.
But Wayne Watson of Canonsburg, Pa., whose union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, boycotted the convention, said the AFL-CIO needs new leadership.
"If you look at what's happened to working people over the 10 years he's been here, it's been a steady decline and erosion," Watson said. "It can't all be attributed to him. But he is the leader of this association, and that's ultimately his responsibility."
Sweeney began his union career as a research assistant with the International Ladies' Garment Workers. Later, as president of a New York City SEIU local, he led two citywide strikes of apartment maintenance workers. When he was first elected to head the AFL-CIO, he was serving his fourth, four-year term as president of the SEIU.