Sweeney’s Internal Squabble Grows

Since elected president in 1995, Sweeney relentlessly talked about the AFL-CIO’s need for signing up new members. But critics inside the AFL-CIO are now saying it’s just talk. “Sweeney’s bid to revitalize labor has been dealt a setback — and he himself has delivered the blow,” according to Business Week . On Jun. 8, Sweeney, “abruptly fired AFL-CIO Organizing Director Richard Bensinger, the brains behind labor’s recruitment strategies and its charismatic proselytizer.” Irate Bensinger supporters blamed Sweeney’s aides: Chief of Staff Robert W. Welsh and Public Affairs Director Denise Mitchell “who saw criticisms by organizers as a threat to their programs.”

“The dismissal has kicked up a firestorm of protest, and some union leaders now fear that Bensinger’s removal will set back their battles to refocus their own unions on recruitment. ‘A lot of what I’ve done I’ve taken from Bensinger,’ says Robert E. Wages, president of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers. ‘Now he’s been canned and my board is asking me, Does this mean his approach is wrong?” Business Week theorized, “Long term, the failure to organize workers could damage labor more than all the scandals involving the Teamsters.”

“So why was Bensinger dumped? Because Sweeney aides thought he was stirring up organizers, insiders say. Many organizers have criticized a $10 million-a-year program that helps locals with politics and membership drives and
a $20 million-a-year plan for a television advertising campaign to bolster the image of unions. This money, they say, should go to recruitment. Organizers even charge Sweeney with failing to allocate the 30% of his budget he pledged to spend on organizing.” [Business Week 06/29/98]