WASHINGTON – Organized labor should help politicians who will advance labor's cause rather than simply supporting Democrats, says a union leader pushing for changes in the AFL-CIO (search).
"We can't just elect Democratic politicians and try to take back the House and take back the Senate and think that's going to change workers' lives," said Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.
During a briefing Thursday, Stern said politics is only part of labor's strategy. He said "electing Democrats and taking back the House or getting rid of (House Majority Leader) Tom DeLay (search)" are not enough to answer workers' problems.
"It certainly would help, but we don't think it's the answer," Stern said.
Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO, countered, "We are committed to standing with and supporting elected leaders or candidates who will stand with working people." That means the AFL-CIO sometimes doesn't support Democrats and sometimes supports Republican candidates who back labor rights, she said.
Democratic officials have said in the past that organized labor should be able to address and resolve questions about their political activities on their own.
Stern was speaking as the leader of the 1.8 million-member SEIU — the largest in the federation — but the feeling that labor should approach politics differently is shared by leaders of other unions in the Change to Win Coalition (search).
The AFL-CIO, which represents almost 60 unions with 13 million members, has substantial differences with the five dissident unions in the coalition, which represent more than 5 million of that total.
The coalition wants the AFL-CIO to commit far more resources to organizing, reduce the size of the staff at central headquarters and encourage unions within certain industries to combine resources.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney (search) has said it is crucial for labor to work on organizing and politics simultaneously to promote an environment where workers can organize without interference. The amount of dues that Stern and other coalition members want returned to the unions for organizing efforts would weaken the AFL-CIO's finances and its ability to fund its political program, Ackerman said.
The coalition members' threats to leave the AFL-CIO were criticized Thursday by Edward McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union within the federation.
"Those threatening actions could do serious harm to the labor movement and to working people for many years to come," he told AFT members in Washington.
The AFL-CIO currently tries to do too many things without a coordinated strategy, Stern said.
"It's like an orchestra where everybody is playing a different song and there's no conductor," Stern said.
Stern's goals are sharply different from Sweeney's, but when asked if Sweeney is capable of leading the labor organization effectively, he said, "He has the personal skills."
Union membership has been on a downward slide for 50 years, now representing 12.5 percent of all U.S. workers, and less than that among employees in the private sector. A half-century ago, one-third of private-sector workers belonged to unions.
Stern took note of AFL-CIO efforts to change the labor movement, saying "they've made progress" but not enough.
The AFL-CIO's annual meeting is set for July 25-28.
"We have made our choice," Stern said, noting coalition leaders will probably meet at the end of the federation's meeting to consider their future. "The AFL is going to have to make theirs."