WASHINGTON – Labor unions in Maryland are nearly evenly split between the two candidates squaring off in organized labor’s first contested presidential election in a century.
Thomas Donahue, who became AFL-CIO president in August when Lane Kirkland retired after 16 years, has the support of at least 13 unions in the state. They represent nearly 140,000 members and the equivalent number of votes at the federation’s national convention, which begins Monday in New York City.
John Sweeney, head of the Service Employees International Union, has the backing of at least 11 Maryland unions, which represent about 122,000 workers, according to the 1990 Directory of Maryland Labor Organizations, the most recent edition published.
Four unions representing more than 13,000 AFL-CIO members in Maryland – carpenters, shipbuilders, musicians and television and radio employees – have not endorsed either candidate.
Three unions – sheet metal workers, ironworkers and paper workers – could not be reached for comment.
“It’s pretty well split,” said Edward A. Mohler, president of the Maryland AFL-CIO.
The AFL-CIO presidential race will be the first since 1895, when Sam Gompers defeated John McBride, said Candice Johnson, a spokeswoman for the labor federation in Washington. A year earlier, McBride, who was president of the Mineworkers Union, scored an upset by defeating Gompers, who had been a founder and early president of the AFL, she said.
At stake in the contest is the chance to become the U.S. labor movement’s chief spokesman. The AFL-CIO represents more than 13 million workers in nearly 80 unions.
Although membership in the federation has grown slightly in the last decade, its share of the work force – now at about 16 percent – has continued to slip.
Sweeney’s campaign claims commitments nationally from union leaders representing 58 percent of the delegate votes. Donahue’s supporters see it differently.
“There’s going to be a lot of moving around,” said Ken Reichard, executive assistant to Thomas McNutt, president of Local 400 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
“There’s room to maneuver,” Reichard said.
Jay Foreman, executive vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said differences between the two candidates are “not discernable” to most union members.
Both are Irish Americans living in the Bronx in New York City. They began in the union movement in the Service Employees International Union.
But Sweeney, 61, promises a break from the past.
Donahue, 67, served for 16 years as secretary-treasurer – the labor federation’s number two post – under Kirkland.
Foreman said Donahue is “simply faster, more mentally adroit, and would be by far the more effective spokesman for organized labor.”
But Howard Scott, a spokesman for the steel workers’ union in Pittsburgh, said with Sweeney as president, “we’re confident we’ll have a more active labor movement in America.”
The two public employees unions are on opposite sides of the campaign. Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was an early backer of Sweeney.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents federal workers, is supporting Donahue. Among other factors, AFGE President John N. Sturdivant cited Donahue’s help securing financial assistance to the union through a difficult time in the 1980s.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents about 65,000 workers in Maryland, is the largest union in Maryland and is backing Donahue. He also has commitments from the plumbers union, communications workers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, teachers and federal employees, spokesmen for the unions said. Among the 10 largest unions in Maryland backing Sweeney are the operating engineers, The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Teamsters, hotel and restaurant employees, and service employees, union spokesmen said. -30-