Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) offered his unequivocal support Monday for embattled AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, just as the once tightly knit coalition of labor unions Sweeney heads began to splinter.
Leaders of the Service Employees International Union and International Brotherhood of Teamsters on Monday announced plans to withdraw from the AFL-CIO, striking an internal blow to organized labor.
Even as other Democratic leaders were careful not to take sides in the ongoing dispute, Kennedy praised Sweeney for his “leadership” and told union members the AFL-CIO president “battles every waking minute for working families across our nation.”
“John Sweeney is my kind of president!” Kennedy declared in a speech before the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago.
Just a few hours earlier, SEIU and the Teamsters officially cut ties with the AFL-CIO and with it denied the umbrella organization millions of dollars in annual dues. The leaders of the breakaway unions have formed a rival organization, Change to Win coalition.
Kennedy was the most prominent elected Democrat to weigh in on the labor dispute, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) choosing to remain neutral on the rift.
Pelosi, who made a point to acknowledge and thank Sweeney for his service, also took the opportunity in her speech before the AFL-CIO convention to remind participants about the federations’ history of uniting to overcome adversity and securing its strength.
“As you meet here today to work out the future of the AFL-CIO, Republicans in Washington are carrying out an assault on your right to organize on fair trade, on Social Security and safe pensions,” Pelosi said. “That is why it is so vital that whatever decisions are made this week, labor must emerge from this convention stronger, and ready to confront any challenge.”
Pelosi then reached back 50 years to a time when Republicans won control of the three branches of government and “were arguing that unions should be knocked out of the political process.”
The Minority Leader reminded convention attendees that the unions “came together” to form the AFL-CIO, putting “aside longstanding rivalries and disagreements and united for the good of labor and future of the nation.”
Reid did not address the AFL-CIO split in his remarks, choosing instead to use his speech to criticize Republican policy decisions and promote the Democratic Party’s priorities.
Rebecca Kirszner, a Reid spokeswoman, said the internal fight would not affect how Democrats and unions work together.
“It’s up to the unions to decide in what form they want to fight for workers’ rights, but nothing will change the fact that Democrats and working men and women stand side-by-side,” Kirszner said.
Still, Kennedy acknowledged that “these are trying times for labor” and noted “that disagreement can be painful.” But the Massachusetts Senator predicted the internal union struggle would not affect the movement’s ultimate goals.
“We stand together in our founding purpose, to improve the lives of workers and their families achieve social and economic justice,” Kennedy said. “We will emerge from these times bigger and stronger than before, and better prepared to take on the challenges of the global economy and guarantee that America’s workers are always put first.”
Democrats said they are not concerned the split would give Republicans an opportunity to make inroads into the labor movement. But privately they acknowledge the schism could weaken a united campaign front heading into the 2006 election.
“At a time when the White House and [Republican operatives] are doing a good job mustering their resources, one of the most stalwart engines of the Democratic Party both in terms of money and workers is splintering,” said a senior Democratic Senate aide, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity.
But Congressional Democrats said they are making a concerted effort to stay clear of this internal disagreement, noting that they have friends and political allies on both sides of the labor dispute.
“It’s a mess,” said a senior Democratic House aide, who would comment only under the cloak of anonymity. “Congressional Democrats have nothing to gain by getting in the middle of it. “
A House Democratic leadership aide said the party cannot afford to alienate any sector of the faithful labor movement.
“It’s definitely a tightrope to walk,” said the aide, who spoke freely about the matter on the condition of anonymity. “Sweeney has been a loyal friend. We can’t just walk away from that.”
The founding members of the Change to Win coalition said they abandoned the AFL-CIO because the organization failed to adequately address the declining union membership and was not adaptive to the changing times. At least two other unions, the United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE could also be leaving the federation, the Associated Press reported.
A Democratic strategist said in the short run it is probably healthy for the union movement to go through these growing pains.
“They are reconfiguring their operations to come up to date,” said the strategist, who has close ties to the Democratic leadership. “The fact of the matter is they do need to do a better job of organizing and expanding unions.”