If everything goes according to plan, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the 51-member Executive Council will be elected for still another fouryear term at the federation’s convention in July 2005.

If that happens, it will be a disaster for the nation’s working men and women, who need a strong union movement to defend their basic rights and living standards.

In the nine years that Sweeney and the Council have run the AFL-CIO, their organizing efforts have been dismal failures. In 1995, when Sweeney and his team were elected, organized labor represented 14.9% of the nation’s work force. Today, it represents only 12.8%. Union membership in the private sector has declined to 8%, the lowest in decades,despite millions of dollars spent on organizing.

On the political front, Sweeney and his staff have been unable to achieve a single victory in Congress, while offering only verbal resistance to President Bush’s sweeping attacks on worker rights, including the new overtime regulations.

With such a woeful track record, how do Sweeney and the Council hope to win re-election? It’s quite simple. They control the convention election machinery, under which less than a dozen leaders of big unions hold a majority of the convention votes and assure themselves and other Council members of automatic re-election.

They won without opposition or campaigning at the 1997 and 2001 conventions, and unless the outrageously unfair convention voting rules are changed, they’ll win again in 2005.

Andy Stern, president of the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union, has been saying publicly what many national labor leaders have been thinking or saying privately: the AFL-CIO has to change radically in its structure and the way it functions, implying that new top leadership is required.

Stern and his associates in the New Unity Partnership (NUP) have their own formula for making the AFL-CIO a more effective organization for working people, but so have other labor leaders who agree with his basic premise that change is imperative. There should be public debate on the Internet, in which leaders and members of all unions could voice their views.

We have one year before the 2005 convention to come to some general agreement on what changes have to be made to strengthen the AFL-CIO.

Where Are the Opposition Leaders?

The choice of a new AFL-CIO leadership should not be left to back-room deals by the leaders of big unions. A “Palace Revolution” with some of the same old faces and one-track minds won’t solve the problems that ail the labor movement.

Union leaders who aspire to a top AFL-CIO position should campaign for it, not have it bestowed upon them by a hierarchical group of kingmakers. They should state on the Internet and in public appearances before union audiences why they deserve to be honored with a leadership position.

One essential reform that neither Stern or any other major labor leader has mentioned is the need to change the convention voting system that gives a delegate from one of the large unions as many as 30,000 votes, while hundreds of delegates are limited to one vote each.

Candidates for high office should be required to publicly pledge their support for a “One Delegate, One Vote” convention rule and any other reform to ensure a free and fair election.

A few Old Guard union leaders want to postpone all talk about reforming the AFL-CIO until after the November presidential elections. But there is no reason to believe that union people can’t carry on both activities at the same time. Sweeney felt the same way when he announced his candidacy for reelection more than 20 months ago.

The 51 members of the Executive Council have held office for nine years, but union members don’t know who most of them are or what they do, because they were all elected and re-elected en masse without ever having to utter a word about their qualifications.

If we’re going to restructure the AFL-CIO, we have to make sure that elections to the Council are open and fair, and that each candidate must offer evidence why he or she is worthy to be chosen. So let the debate begin.

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