BOSTON – The head of the largest union in the AFL-CIO (search) says the labor movement is in crisis and might be more motivated to change if Democrat John Kerry (search) is not elected president — even though he doesn't want to chance it by keeping George W. Bush in the White House.
Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (search), with 1.6 million members, said in an interview Monday with The Washington Post that the effort he is leading to restructure organized labor would lose momentum under a Democratic president.
"I don't know if it would survive with a Democratic president," Stern told the newspaper in a story published Tuesday, saying labor leaders would become partners in the new establishment.
Asked if a Kerry presidency would help or hurt the internal union deliberations about change, Stern said, "I think it hurts."
He did not say specifically why change would be less likely in a Kerry administration, but told the Post that Kerry, like former President Clinton, would use the party for his own political benefit and labor leaders would become partners of the new establishment.
In a statement released later to The Associated Press, Stern clarified his remarks, reiterating his union's support for Kerry.
"Let me be clear: It is SEIU's top priority to help elect a president who will stand up for America's working families," he said in a statement. "That is why we are spending an unprecedented $65 million to win in November. I am personally committed to help send John Kerry to the White House because he has always fought for working families."
SEIU endorsed former Vermont governor Howard Dean in the primaries. Stern's comments came on the opening day of the convention, as Democrats worked to present a united front in the effort to defeat President Bush in November.
"There is no question that when John Kerry is president, America's working families will have a better life," Stern said. "And the truth is the labor movement has an obligation to ensure that working families never again suffer as they have under George W. Bush."
Stern is an outspoken leader in the labor movement who has regularly voiced his frustrations with the AFL-CIO structure. He and a handful of other union presidents are pushing for an overhaul as the federation turns 50 next year. Plagued with dwindling membership, unions represent just 12.9 percent of the work force — an all-time low.
Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the second-largest union under the AFL-CIO umbrella, said it would be worthwhile to examine the labor movement and its structure, but an overhaul might be going to far.
"I don't know about restructuring," he said in an interview.
"I think in any institution it's a good thing to take a look at how it is structured," he said. 'But where it takes you is a different story."
Labor also has worked hard at showing unity in its effort to defeat Bush, but brewing behind the scenes is a power struggle over its future. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's term expires next summer, and he has said he will seek another term. But he is likely to face a challenger or two from unions aligned with Stern that are unhappy with a perceived lack of emphasis on organizing new members.
Stern stirred controversy last month when he said that Sweeney, who happens to be Stern's predecessor at SEIU, "has proven that the problem is not who captains the ship, but that the ship was not built to navigate the storms of the modern world."