Charles Rex Arbogast  /  AP
John Sweeney looks out over the floor during the AFL-CIO's national convention just before he was re-elected president at Chicago's Navy Pier Wednesday.
updated 7/27/2005 8:46:39 PM ET 2005-07-28T00:46:39

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, the center of a storm in the labor movement, was re-elected to a fourth term Wednesday — just days after the defection of two major unions that sought his ouster.

Sweeney had headed one of those unions, the Service Employees International Union, when he was first elected AFL-CIO president in 1995.

He faced no opposition for another four-year term with the AFL-CIO on Wednesday.

The two dissident unions, the SEIU and Teamsters, said Sweeney was doing too little to reverse the decades-long decline in union membership. They also accused him of focusing more on building political clout than on organizing efforts to recruit new members and said it was time for new ideas at the top.

Sweeney, 71, was defiant. He called the defections a "grievous insult" that could hurt workers already buffeted by the global economy and anti-union forces in Congress.

The AFL-CIO had 13 million members before the Teamsters and SEIU dropped out on Monday, taking about 3.2 million workers with them.

Union leaders say more departures are also possible; the Teamsters, SEIU and two other unions that boycotted the AFL-CIO convention belong to a seven-union group called the Change to Win Coalition.

In reaction to Sweeney's re-election, spokespeople for the coalition and the Teamsters issued short statements wishing him and the AFL-CIO well.

"We are moving forward with our plans to strengthen the labor movement," said Leigh Strope, a Teamsters spokeswoman.

Sweeney's defenders pointed to a number of reforms enacted at this week's convention _ some of which were similar to those wanted by the dissident unions.

A $22.5 million fund will be reserved for use by affiliates in organizing, and an effort is under way to bring greater diversity to leadership roles in the AFL-CIO. A number of new committees also will be created and organized by sector, such as around the health care industry, to help coordinate efforts on contracts and recruiting.

Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, praised Sweeney for leading by consensus.

"He seeks out ideas. He is open to debate. He's willing to listen to creativity, innovativeness, different positions. And then he has the ability to make the tough decisions," Schaitberger said.

But Wayne Watson of Canonsburg, Pa., whose union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, boycotted the convention, said the AFL-CIO needs new leadership. He said Sweeney's focus on politics has failed to result in friendlier labor laws, and that too often the AFL-CIO falls in line with the Democratic Party without considering the merits of individual candidates.

"If you look at what's happened to working people over the 10 years he's been here, it's been a steady decline and erosion," Watson said. "It can't all be attributed to him. But he is the leader of this association, and that's ultimately his responsibility."

Sweeney began his union career as a research assistant with the International Ladies' Garment Workers. Later, as president of a New York City SEIU local, he led two citywide strikes of apartment maintenance workers. When he was first elected to head the AFL-CIO, he was serving his fourth, four-year term as president of the SEIU.

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