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Taking on John Sweeney's McCarthyesque Imposition

The Spokesman-Review
12 June 03

MORTON ALEXANDER SPEAKS softly. He fusses with his glasses and new hearing aids. A program manager with the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, he handles activities that support child social work, such as issuing clearances for volunteers and arranging the holiday gift program.

He's taking on John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor organization.

Next week, Alexander will be in Washington, D.C., to meet with the executive board of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. On behalf of the Washington Federation of State Employees, he will be asking the board to adopt a resolution seeking elimination of language added to the AFL-CIO national constitution in 1997.

The specific wording is: "No individual shall be eligible to serve as an officer, member of the executive board or committee or other governing body of, or any other committee of, or as a delegate from, or as a representative, agent or employee of any state central body who consistently pursues policies and activities directed toward the achievement of the program or purposes of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, terrorism and other forces that suppress individual liberties and freedom of association."

The language amended an earlier version that exorcised communists and fascists.

The AFL-CIO international headquartered in Washington, D.C., in 2000 asked the state labor councils to incorporate the wording into their constitutions. At its convention that year, the Washington council balked.

"It was almost McCarthyesque, some of the stuff that was in it," says council spokesman David Groves, referring to the Wisconsin senator who in the early 1950s held anti-communist hearings infamous for witness abuse and intimidation.

Other states objected, he says, but "I can't recall any other state made the stink about it we did."

Stink or not, Alexander says, Sweeney had the last word. He ordered the language be written into the state constitutions.

The Washington council, having been overruled by Sweeney, last year in Spokane adopted a resolution calling for individual unions to work the issue up through their own organizations to executive boards and national conventions that could put pressure on the AFL-CIO to eliminate or redraft the amended language.

Enter Alexander, who says he was unaware of the fracas over the constitution wording until he attended the Spokane convention.

"The people in unions think of unions as actively defending our rights," Alexander says. Prohibitions like those written into the AFL-CIO constitution "are pre-emptive strikes domestically against all expressions of dissent."

Next week, he counterattacks. If Alexander can convince the AFSCME executive board the controversial amendment is misguided, board member and AFSCME union president McEntee can take the message directly to the AFL-CIO board, and Sweeney.

Alexander finds some irony in what he says is the authoritarian way state labor councils were forced to adopt language barring supporters of authoritarianism from holding positions with state unions.

The state labor council called the wording anti-democratic, and members note that the standards would have banned union activists like Mother Jones and Cesar Chavez.

Alexander says he does not know what to expect in Washington. Instead of forwarding the resolution to the AFL-CIO board, the AFSCME executives could hold it for submission to the next union's national convention, or reject it outright. A move to put the matter before the 2002 AFSCME convention was withdrawn because of still-raw sensitivities lingering from the 9/11 attacks.

The resolute Alexander says it's time to press forward. "I'm a troublemaker," he says.

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