TOPICS > Economy

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney: Working Issues

February 20, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

In a Newsmaker interview with Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney discusses efforts to stop the decline in union membership and what issues are facing working Americans.

JEFFREY KAYE: Labor leaders ended their annual winter meeting today vowing to boost the declining ranks of America’s unions. It was unusual for the AFL-CIO’s 45-member executive council to meet in Los Angeles.

For 72 years the four-day meeting took place in a Florida resort. But this time the labor officials chose an area that has become a hotbed of union organizing, symbolic, they say, of labor’s resurgence. John Sweeney, the man behind the crusade for union members, is in his 16th month as president of the labor federation. He came to power promising aggressive organizing campaigns, but union membership continued its downward trend last year. Only 14 ½ percent of American workers belong to labor unions, compared to 35 percent in the 1950’s.

Under Sweeney a streamlined federation pumped up its organizing budget and it spent some $35 million in the last election supporting pro-labor candidates. This week Vice President Al Gore thanked labor leaders for their support, and he announced a new federal policy that would deny federal contracts to companies that violate labor laws.

VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: If you want to do business with the federal government, you had better maintain a safe workplace and respect civil, human, and yes, union rights. That will be taken into account in decisions on federal contracting.

JEFFREY KAYE: Also at the meeting the AFL-CIO vowed to step up advertising campaigns, to recruit more women, and to support organizing drives among low-paid immigrant workers in the fields, in construction, and in service industries.

MARIA ELENA DURAZO, Hotel Workers Union: We’re here to say that workers have to be respected; Latinos and immigrant workers, and people of all color have to be respected by corporations, no matter how big they are.

JEFFREY KAYE: Labor organizers have been frustrated by companies which have moved production and cheap labor abroad. This week union leaders pledged to strengthen international alliances with workers. They also announced plans to unionize welfare recipients who under the new welfare law will have to work for their benefits.

JOHN SWEENEY, President, AFL-CIO: The implications of welfare reform potentially extend to every workplace in America, and our organizing initiative is just one of our plans to ensure that the 2 million welfare recipients who will be required to participate in work activities have the same rights as other American workers.

JEFFREY KAYE: The pressure to make all this succeed falls on Sweeney, who has had long experience representing low wage employees, first with government workers, later as president of the Service Employees International Union.

JEFFREY KAYE: Joining us now for an interview is John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.

Mr. Sweeney, welcome.

JOHN SWEENEY, President, AFL-CIO: Thank you.

JEFFREY KAYE: Why is union membership still declining?

JOHN SWEENEY: I think it reflects a number of different things in terms of the changes that have taken place in our economy, the growth of the new work force, the growth of the service sector of the economy, decline in basic industry jobs which were highly organized and high paid skill jobs, and all of those changes that have taken place have not so much been reflected in a decline in the numbers as a decline in the percentage of the work force as the work force has grown.

JEFFREY KAYE: What do you think that–how do you think you’ll be able to reverse this trend?

JOHN SWEENEY: Well, I believe that we can recommit ourselves to more aggressive organizing. I think that workers are hurting, and they’re anxious to be organized, but they want to be organized around the issues that they considered their priorities. And we have to make sure that we interconnect with grassroots activists and reach out to workers; that we make better use of focus groups, and polling to find out what their real issues are. I think that the decline in wages in relation to the standard of living over the past 20 years reflects the fact that we need a stronger labor movement, and that’s what this is all about.

JEFFREY KAYE: But what you’re talking about, in large part, reflects an economy that is beyond the ability of labor unions to change, one might think. How do you change or fix an economy?

JOHN SWEENEY: Oh, I think that we have to capitalize on the fact that we have a very successful economy. Profits are up; productivity is up. Stock market prices are soaring.

CEO compensation is at its highest levels. Workers are the only ones that aren’t getting their fair share of this very successful economy. It wasn’t always this way. We had an economy in the past, and we’ve had periods of time when there was a greater respect for workers and for the jobs that they do, and a greater value in terms of the importance of our work force. We have the most skilled work force in the world. We have the best economy in the world.

It’s high time that we pay more attention to the people who contribute to the success of our economy and that we give them a little bit better share of the profits; that they can keep up with the standard of living, and that they can raise their families in dignity, and that they don’t have to be working two and three jobs to keep up with things.

JEFFREY KAYE: But if the economy is in good shape, and what you’re saying is workers just need to share in it, what then–what steps do you take as organized labor to turn that around?

JOHN SWEENEY: We build a stronger labor movement. A stronger labor movement makes us stronger at the bargaining table, builds a stronger political voice to elect people to office who want to address the issues of working families and not cut back on programs that workers consider necessary. We put more money into education and training. Those are the kinds of programs that we should be doing in terms of respecting the workers and the jobs that they perform.

JEFFREY KAYE: But let’s look at one of the areas that I know you’re concerned about, and that’s the loss of jobs to international, cheaper labor. What is the labor union in this country–labor movement in this country doing about that?

JOHN SWEENEY: The labor movement in this country recognizes the fact that it is good for our country to have good trading partners. It is good for our country to have good globalization policies, but to have some consideration for workers not only in our own country but in other countries. And all of our trade agreements should provide stronger work standards and human rights protections, as well as environmental protections. The human being has to play a bigger role in terms of these agreements.

JEFFREY KAYE: So how would you prevent company A, let’s say, from going to Mexico, where they can find workers for $7 a day?

JOHN SWEENEY: I’m not saying that we have to prevent the company from going to Mexico. We have to have a better sense of values in terms of how we treat workers in our own country, and we have to have a greater concern for workers in other countries.

And I think that we can do both and still have a good economy, good productivity, good profits. There’s a corporate greed out there that loses sight of the human resource that goes into the success of our economy, and it’s about time that corporations realized workers, the value of workers not only in our own country but in other countries.

JEFFREY KAYE: What about the role of the government? President Clinton recently blocked the American Airlines pilots’ strike. Were you disappointed? Was that a big blow for labor?

JOHN SWEENEY: I was hopeful that the collective bargaining process would have continued and that the right of these pilots to negotiate a contract would have been protected. I’m still hopeful that the management of American Airlines will come to the bargaining table and negotiate a fair contract. These pilots made concessions when American Airlines was in trouble, and now that American Airlines is much more successful with their profits, they had better take a look at the role that their pilots play.

JEFFREY KAYE: Organized labor put a lot of money into supporting Democrats and to President Clinton. Were you disappointed by what he did?

JOHN SWEENEY: Oh, we have supported the President, as we’ve said, after his first term. We didn’t always agree with the President on every single issue. But the President is basically concerned about America’s working families and their issues. I think that the programs that he advanced during his election campaign are programs that we’re very supportive of, and I believe that the President will be a good pro-American working family President.

JEFFREY KAYE: Does that mean that you’re going to be urging him, as you indicated earlier in this discussion, to change American trade policy to the benefit of American workers?

JOHN SWEENEY: Oh, our position is very similar to what we stated during our opposition to the NAFTA agreement. We’re concerned about workers’ standards and human rights and environmental protection. And we think that the NAFTA agreement should have been stronger on these issues. We believe that it was wrong to include with the NAFTA that we did. We will be raising this again in the extension debate of NAFTA and then any other trade agreement.

JEFFREY KAYE: Finally, I gather what you’re saying is you would like to see some sort of wholesale change in attitude in the way American business conducts itself. Do you think that’s going to come about by threats, by force, and ways that labor has traditionally implemented strikes, boycotts, or in other ways?

JOHN SWEENEY: Oh, no. I think that the program that’s going to be necessary is to build a stronger labor movement. It’s not about threatening. It’s about building an organization of workers in this country, convincing workers that the only way they can solve the problems that affect their lives and their families is by joining together and bargaining together.

And I believe that the work that you see the unions and the AFL-CIO doing now and organizing is an indication that we’re going to turn the numbers around and the–you will see a steady building of a stronger labor movement.

JEFFREY KAYE: All right, Mr. Sweeney. Thank you very much.

JOHN SWEENEY: Thank you. Nice to be with you.