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Sweeney, Pataki and CAFTA: What They Share in Common

This column is about three seemingly unrelated news stories that broke the same day. They aren’t entirely unrelated, however — and that’s what makes them worth writing about. [IMGCAP(1)]

Last Wednesday, John Sweeney was reelected as president of the AFL-CIO, the now-fracturing labor federation that has defined organized labor for decades and has been a major player in Democratic politics for just as long.

That same day, New York Gov. George Pataki (R) surprised no one by announcing that he would not seek a fourth term as governor of the Empire State. What’s next for the now-lame duck governor? “I will follow a new path, find new challenges,” he said — a possible reference to a 2008 White House bid.

The third event actually stretched over two days, since Republicans couldn’t round up enough votes to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement until a few minutes after midnight. But pass it they did, by just two votes and after holding the vote open long enough to twist a few arms and secure a few more votes.

Sweeney and Pataki have both been around for years, but when faced with a crucial decision about their futures, they chose very different paths.

Pataki, who turned 60 last month, opted to switch rather than fight, while Sweeney, who knew that his re-election would lead to a split in the labor movement, refused to walk off calmly into the sunset.

Given Pataki’s job approval in recent polls, the governor almost certainly could not defeat his likely Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, next year. A recent Siena College poll found Pataki trailing Spitzer by a dozen points, and only three in 10 respondents said that the Republican should seek another term.

So to preserve his reputation, and his options for 2008, the one-time mayor of Peekskill, state legislator and dragon-slayer who ended the career of then-Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) has announced that he wants new challenges.

If Pataki does run for president, he will need to convince conservatives that he is one of them. That won’t be easy, considering his recent record. In fact, it strikes me as nearly impossible.

Unlike Pataki, Sweeney, 71, knew that he couldn’t retreat to fight another day. At his age, retreat is tantamount to defeat and permanent retirement.

In an obvious irony, Sweeney once served as president of the Service Employees International Union and led an insurgency that toppled then-AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland in 1995. Now, SEIU is one of the leading rebel unions, and Sweeney finds himself presiding over a federation that has already lost two major affiliates and is expected to lose others.

At a breakfast earlier this month, Sweeney acknowledged that a split in the AFL-CIO “would be devastating to workers,” but he apparently didn’t feel that it was so devastating that he should agree to some sort of negotiated retirement after winning another term.

“I’m running for a four-year term, and with the help of God my plan is to serve that term,” he said.

Interestingly, Sweeney was unopposed, even though a couple of weeks ago there was strong opposition in some quarters to his re-election. But his opponents, most notably Andy Stern of SEIU and James P. Hoffa of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, didn’t put up a candidate against Sweeney. They knew they couldn’t deny him another term, so they “pulled a Pataki” and exited stage left, forming their own group, the Change to Win Coalition.

Should Sweeney have found a way to yield control of the AFL-CIO in the near future to save the federation? Should Stern have fought the good fight for control of the federation and agreed to stand with his colleagues in the labor movement, win or lose? You decide.

The current deep division within organized labor did not contribute to the passage of CAFTA. After all, organized labor couldn’t stop the North American Free Trade Agreement or Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China when it was still united in the AFL-CIO.

But the passage of the new trade agreement surely serves as a reminder of the limits of organized labor’s clout, the changing labor force in this country, the minority status of labor’s ally, the Democratic Party, and the differences in the priorities of various unions and union members.

Some in organized labor insist that they want to reach out to Republicans, and Pataki is one of those relatively few Republicans who have received union endorsements. Not only was he endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers in his 2002 re-election bid, but Pataki also was endorsed by Local 1199 of the SEIU and UNITE (which, after a merger, is now UNITE HERE).

Those endorsements, and the reasons for them, may well have helped Pataki defeat Carl McCall (D) to win a third term in 2002, but they would be an albatross around his neck in a GOP presidential race.

Organized labor must now figure out where to go from here. Everyone expects the affiliates of the two competing groups to try to raid each other’s memberships. That will make it hard for them to work together, whether on Capitol Hill, during the midterm elections or in 2008. And while organized labor talks about the need to work with Republicans, such as Pataki, it may find fewer and fewer who feel the need to work with a divided labor movement.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report