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PITTSBURGH — As AFL-CIO president John Sweeney prepares to step down this week, he opened the union federation’s convention on a hopeful note, emphasizing what he regards as the successes of his 14 years in the office.
Organized labor had “changed the direction of our country” with the election of a Democratic Congress and a president who is “a champion of working families,” Sweeney said, bringing the nation to the cusp of reform of healthcare and labor law.
But he said that unions during his tenure had also “changed our movement,” reaching out to new allies, like worker centers; creating new organizations, like Working America, the AFL-CIO’s three million-member community affiliate; and rebuilding state federations and central labor councils.
Sweeney’s intentions to diversify labor’s leadership – discussed at a pre-convention conference – at least resulted in 43 percent of delegates being women or minorities, even if older white men disproportionately hold power.
He gave only passing mention to the 2005 split in organized labor, when seven important unions founded Change to Win, an alternative model of labor federation that is increasingly divided and falling short of many of its founders’ expectations.
Nor did he discuss organizing, one of his foremost concerns when he took office. Despite improved organizing efforts by a slowly growing number of unions, the union share of the workforce continued to decline until a slight uptick in the last two years.
Many observers think the reform energy of Sweeney’s first term petered out in his last, but at least the political operations continued and refined the initial reform momentum. (Here is my longer review of Sweeney’s AFL-CIO career.)
Despite the gloomy job market and the rough sledding (and Democratic backsliding) on labor’s top political priorities, Sweeney extolled the virtue of solidarity and –always the genial optimist– said that he sees a bright future for unions and American workers:
As we begin our convention today, I’m filled with optimism. We’ve helped create one of those rare moments when history invites dramatic improvement in the human condition. And we’re about to elect a new and exciting leadership team who will help us seize that moment.
Delegates gave Sweeney a hearty standing ovation for the farewell of a leader widely liked for his personal decency, even if labor’s record during his tenure is mixed and the possibilities for some defining turn in “the human condition” still seem theoretical.
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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.