BOSTON, July 30 – The nation’s labor unions have rallied behind John Kerry after being openly divided just a few months ago when many unions backed Representative Richard A. Gephardt for president while others supported Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor.
But behind their newfound unity in politics, the nation’s unions are in turmoil, with some labor leaders maneuvering to become the A.F.L.- C.I.O.’s next president and some hinting that they might pull out of the organization. Some union presidents, alarmed that the labor movement is shrinking, are calling for a radical overhaul of organized labor, while others angrily accuse them of trying to dictate policies and of washing labor’s dirty laundry in public.
As hundreds of union leaders gathered here for the Democratic convention, the head of Senator Kerry’s labor effort, Harold Schaitberger, implored those leaders to put aside their internal bickering and elbow-throwing, at least through November, so labor can focus on electing Mr. Kerry. With labor promising its biggest campaign mobilization ever, the Kerry camp is looking for a big lift from organized labor, which represents 13 million workers and traditionally provides the army of foot soldiers that Democrats need if they are to win.
“It’s time that we all pull together,’ said Mr. Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, the first major union to endorse Mr. Kerry.
“What’s at stake is the very existence of the labor movement.
I think the movement will be damaged, will be set back for decades, if George Bush wins again.”
He complained that Mr. Bush had stripped many federal workers of their right to unionize, had watered down overtime and job safety protections and had appointed a National Labor Relations Board that had made it harder for unions to organize workers.
But appeals for labor unity stumbled badly during the convention. Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s fastest-growing union, gave interviews in which he asserted that the Democrats lacked an economic message and that Mr. Kerry was not pro-worker enough. Mr. Stern, whose union has 1.6 million members, also said organized labor was in crisis.
“The Democrats have to decide where they stand on economic issues,” Mr. Stern said in an interview on the convention’s first day. “John Kerry’s positions are fine, but they don’t go far enough to deal with the issues that are facing people who go to work every day.”
Mr. Stern’s comments angered and confounded other labor leaders, especially because the service employees say they plan to spend $65 million this year to help elect Mr. Kerry, more than twice the level in 2000 and far more than any union has ever spent in a campaign. Indeed, the nation’s unions plan to spend more than $160 million on politics this year, up from an estimated $100 million four years ago.
Mr. Stern’s harsh words for organized labor and the Democrats caused some union leaders to attack him for imprudence and bad timing.
“We thought there was an understanding that whatever the problems or divisions, you put that on the shelf until after November,’ said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Mr. Schaitberger said Mr. Stern was wrong in suggesting that Mr. Kerry was not pro-worker enough.
“I can’t disagree more strongly,” he said. “John Kerry has a 20-year track record with labor that you can measure, whether it’s increasing the minimum wage or protecting the right to bargain collectively.”
Mr. Stern’s comments were the latest sparks generated by his faction within the A.F.L.-C.I.O. That four-union grouping, the New Unity Partnership, has called for overhauling the A.F.L.-C.I.O., creating fewer and bigger unions and redefining which unions can recruit which workers. Some leaders in this group have even hinted that they might pull out of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. if the federation, comprising 60 unions, shunned their calls for change.
Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists, said that if the partnership’s leaders continued trying to dictate to other unions, the labor federation might split into competing halves, like the old American Federation of Labor and old Congress of Industrial Organizations before they merged a half century ago. Mr. Buffenbarger said several industrial unions resented the way the partnership was trying to dominate the labor federation
“The way they talk, it’s my way or no way,’ Mr. Buffenbarger said. “If the rhetoric doesn’t calm down, you’ll see old alliances form and that might lead to recreating the old A.F.L. and old C.I.O.” Mr. Buffenbarger said some union leaders felt that the partnership’s leaders – three of the five are Ivy League graduates – talk down to them.
Bruce Raynor, president of Unite Here, a union representing textile, hotel and restaurant workers and a member of the New Unity Partnership, said Mr. Stern and the partnership were right to push for far-reaching changes. He said the structure of organized labor was outmoded, asserting that unions were too fractured, small and poorly structured to contend with global corporations.
“The labor movement needs to confront these issues, but not in a backroom,” Mr. Raynor said. “We’re not the Kremlin. It’s not like people don’t know that our ability to protect American workers has been weakened. We have to turn that around, and to some degree that debate has to be done publicly.”
Behind this feuding are the seeds of the race to succeed John J. Sweeney, 70, who has been the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s president for nine years. Mr. Sweeney has repeatedly said he would seek a new four-year term next July.
But many labor leaders predict that he may step aside, suggesting that he declared he wanted another term to prevent labor leaders from focusing their energies this year on campaigning to succeed him, instead of campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee.
Some labor leaders say they expect the New Unity Partnership to pressure Mr. Sweeney not to run again to make way for new blood. Many say they expect John Wilhelm, the longtime president of the hotel and restaurant employees union and a leader of the New Unity Partnership, to seek to succeed Mr. Sweeney. But if Mr. Sweeney steps aside, several industrial unions are expected to back Richard Trumka, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s secretary-treasurer.
“There’s no question that the labor movement should talk about and focus on change, but our emphasis right now has to be on the election of John Kerry,” Mr. Sweeney said. “We have had some terrible times over the last four years with the anti-worker, anti-union policies of the Bush administration.”