AFL-CIO's Top Organizer Ousted Will Organizing Suffer?

"It’s something we don’t dare touch with a ten-foot pole," declared the legislative director for a national union. "This is a very sensitive, ticklish thing."

What's sensitive and ticklish is AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's decision in June to remove his organizing director, Richard Bensinger. The new organizing director is Kirk Adams, the federation’s southern regional director, who has worked as the campaign director and political director for Democratic Texas Governor Ann Richards. Like many other AFL-CIO staffers, Adams comes out of the Service Employees International Union.

While those within the AFL-CIO maintain that the change does not indicate a shift in the Federation's policy on organizing, many activists do not believe it.

The official story is that Bensinger was not a good enough administrator. What this seems to mean is that the Federation's organizing program just wasn't working. Last year, unions organized 100,000 more workers than in 1996, but membership still fell by 159,000.

But this seems--at best--only part of the story. "This was a political move," said the legislative director. If organizing directors were "hired or fired based on their record..., there would be very few to promote."

Many unionists say that Bensinger alienated some old guard union leaders by his constant emphasis on organizing--and the implicit criticism that many unions were not doing a good job of it. Though there is no proof that any of them demanded Bensinger's head, it seems likely that Sweeney was under some pressure to replace him.

"I think [Bensinger] was too critical of the unions and union leadership on organizing," said one national organizer.

"He helped launch a certain debate within the labor movement, which has trickled down into the locals," the organizer said. "More and more, [Bensinger] was talking about developing more member organizers. You can’t convince the same old bureaucrats to do anything that will put them out of business."

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SHAKING THE TREE

"Bensinger was shaking the tree," agreed the legislative director. "But there is a power block of forces that are financially, philosophically and violently opposed to organizing." The firing "portends a rightward movement for the AFL," he said. "It was a pre-emptive move. After all, Jim Hoffa's about ready to run the Teamsters."

"Sweeney’s a genius," the legislative director added. "He understands that within the labor movement, there’s a right, a left, a center, and a gangster element, and he knows how to balance all four."

Not everyone agrees about how important Bensinger's removal is. "I'm not dissing Richard," says a Washington-based Teamster staffer, who blames the poor organizing numbers on "a systemic and institutional problem" within the AFL-CIO.

"I just can’t see the change as anything significant in the labor movement," he said, adding that the AFL-CIO is just plugging a new person into an ineffective program, so a change of personnel is only meaningful to those at the top.

But a number of organizing directors for major unions are worried that the firing might mean less emphasis on organizing. "Richard was a strong advocate for organizing and encouraging national and local unions to devote more resources to organizing," said one.

Several organizing directors went to see Sweeney about their concerns over the firing. One participant characterized it as "a good meeting.... What we said, as national union organizers, is that it’s important for the AFL-CIO to support our individual union organizing programs. It’s up to the federation’s affiliates to implement their own programs to make organizing real and a top priority of their own membership and local leadership."