AFL-CIO Staff Cuts Lead to Identity Crisis

The AFL-CIO is cutting a quarter of its staff. The cutbacks are painful for organized labor, which is dedicated to the notion of preserving jobs rather than eliminating them. But critics within the labor movement say the AFL-CIO needs a drastic overhaul.

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The AF of L-CIO is doing something it often criticizes big companies for doing. It is laying off workers. The layoffs are the group's largest in decades, and as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, they're a sign of the challenges organized labor faces as it wrestles with an uncertain future.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

The shrinking labor movement is about to get a little smaller. The AFL-CIO, labor's umbrella group, is cutting one-quarter of its work force. The group says the layoffs will allow it to focus on recruiting union members and political mobilization. The AFL-CIO plans to send up to $15 million in dues back to member unions for grassroots organizing. The group's president, John Sweeney, wants to use some of the savings to build a full-time effort to elect more pro-labor candidates.

Mr. JOHN SWEENEY (President, AFL-CIO): You can't be successful if you don't build a stronger labor movement. And you can't build a stronger labor movement without changing the laws in our country.

LANGFITT: Sweeney made his proposals after five member unions demanded the AFL-CIO pour more money into organizing. One union, the Service Employees International, has threatened to leave the group if it doesn't make dramatic changes. Sweeney's critics say the situation is so dire that the group needs to put more than half of its budget into organizing. As Sweeney prepares to run for a third term, opponents say his plans to refocus the AFL-CIO aren't enough.

Mr. JOHN WILHELM (Co-president, United Here): Those proposals are the rhetoric of change without the substance.

LANGFITT: That's John Wilhelm, co-president of Unite Here, which represents textile as well as hotel and restaurant workers. Wilhelm is one of Sweeney's sharpest critics and often mentioned as a rival candidate.

Mr. WILHELM: Unfortunately, John has become invested in the status quo, and so I think this debate is fundamentally important. And I think there needs to be a leadership change in order to carry out the next wave.

LANGFITT: Given the AFL-CIO's role as defender of workers' rights, the layoffs are especially painful. More than 100 people will lose their jobs. Nelson Lichtenstein teaches labor history at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He says the cuts are tied to the labor movement's steady decline. In the 1950s, 35 percent of workers were union members; today fewer than 13 percent are.

Mr. NELSON LICHTENSTEIN (University of California-Santa Barbara): Labor is weak institutionally and financially in the United States. And when you don't organize workers, you don't have dues. Big labor doesn't exist; it hasn't existed for decades, and this is a symptom of that.

LANGFITT: Liechtenstein says the debate between Sweeney and his critics has become little more than a budget battle at a time when the movement needs bold ideas. Rick Hurd directs labor studies at Cornell University. He says the AFL-CIO has to unify behind a common strategy at its summer convention or risk a split.

Mr. RICK HURD (Cornell University): The layoffs in and of themselves mean very little. What matters is what comes out of this whole process. If the convention results in a divided labor movement with some unions leaving, then the size of the staff almost becomes irrelevant because it's going to be hamstrung in terms of getting anything done.

LANGFITT: The debate over the AFL-CIO's future could reach a crescendo when it holds what is expected to be a watershed meeting this July in Chicago. After nearly a decade in office, Sweeney says he has enough support to win another five-year term. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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