To renovate headquarters, AFL-CIO renegotiates its space

Less than two years after taking over as president of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney is intent on making a mess of things.

Starting sometime near Labor Day, a small army of union construction workers is set to begin an 18-month renovation of the labor federation's marble-clad headquarters on 16th Street, just across Lafayette Square from the White House. The goal is to provide more space for an expanding headquarters staff that has burgeoned from 400 to about 500 over the past two years.

"We want to bring under one roof all the AFL-CIO departments and constituent groups," said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, who notes that the federation has created three new departments. And, as the man in charge of paying the bills, Trumka said it will be nice to be able to cool the executive offices on a summer weekend without having to run the air conditioning through the entire building.

The federation has already kicked out a number of tenants, including a handful of national unions such as Unite! and the United Steelworkers of America, which rented space in the building for their Washington offices.

The steelworkers union grumpily points out that the reason they were in the AFL-CIO building in the first place was because union President George Meany asked them to rent space to help pay for the building. They are now in the building that also houses the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

A number of AFL-CIO departments, such as the political and international affairs operations, have already moved across the street to a building adjacent to the Hay-Adams Hotel, where the federation has rented 30,000 square feet of space. The AFL-CIO may still have to find some annex space outside the building.

By the time the $15 million renovation is completed, whole departments will be moved out of the building while every floor is gutted to make more room for an expanding headquarters staff. The renovated building will be wired for the computer age, work space will be more open in the egalitarian tradition of the modern office and, for the first time, there will be an employee cafeteria.

But managers returning from construction exile may not be quite as pleased about the changes as their subordinates, as their offices will be smaller. Bob Welsh, the AFL-CIO's chief of staff, who has been overseeing the renovation planning, said the new offices will be 10-by-10-feet instead of the 10-by-12-feet spaces they now occupy.

Just how will the reconstruction affect Sweeney's corner office overlooking the White House? "Sweeney's office won't change," said Welsh, who joked that the renovation is just an excuse to clean up the piles of paper in Sweeney's notoriously messy office.

One room that will change on the top floor is the already cavernous meeting room of the federation's ruling Executive Council, which has been expanded from 29 to 54 members, with more women and minorities at the top policymaking level of the federation. The room will be expanded.

It's not clear, however, whether the back of the president's chair will be lowered by two inches to make it the same height as everyone else's on the council.

Planning for renovation hasn't been easy. The first problem was finding a union contractor that wasn't "double-breasted," an industry practice frowned on by the construction unions. Double-breasted contractors are those companies that offer both union and nonunion work. The AFL-CIO had to go to New York City to find the McCann Co., a purely union contractor that could do the job.

Part of the renovation calls for creating a gift shop in the massive, two-story-tall lobby that stretches across the front of the building. In a world where everyone else sells hats, T-shirts, books and other memorabilia, why not organized labor?

"We want workers to stop by when they come to Washington," Welsh said.

By almost any measure, the AFL-CIO headquarters is considered one of the most solidly constructed buildings in Washington. Why wouldn't it be when George Meany, a plumber by trade, supervised every inch of the construction.

When President Eisenhower laid the cornerstone for the original building in 1955, there was no AFL-CIO, just an American Federation of Labor and a rival Congress of Industrial Organizations. By the next year, the two labor groups had merged just in time for the stone cutters to chisel the correct name on the original facade.

Welsh said the land was purchased from its neighbor, St. John's Episcopal Church, as part of a land swap. The labor federation owned the building that is now the St. John's rectory and the church owned the vacant land that houses the AFL-CIO headquarters. In the early 1970s, the size of the headquarters was doubled when the AFL-CIO purchased the old Lafayette Hotel on the corner of 16th and I streets NW, and tore it down.

At no time during the planning for the renovation did they consider selling the current building and moving to the Washington area suburbs, as some unions have done in recent years, Welsh said. "It's a really great location," he said.

PEACE TALKS between the Justice for Janitors' organizing campaign and downtown office building owners appear to be progressing. But it's still too early to tell whether the two sides can reach agreement on a union contract for the men and women who clean many of the city's offices.

A month after the Service Employees International Union announced a cease-fire in its militant 10-year war with the city's commercial landlords, union officials say they are optimistic they can reach a peaceful settlement that could become the pattern for janitors' organizing campaigns in other cities.

SEIU President Andrew Stern stunned even his own supporters in mid-May in announcing a unilateral end to the strikes and demonstrations that had marked the city's Justice for Janitors campaign, and calling for cooperation rather than confrontation. The move was unexpected from Stern, the young and militant new president of the 1.3 million-member union who had been the architect of such tactics as blocking bridges into Washington during rush hour.

Since then, Stern has been actively meeting with building owners and janitorial contractors in an effort to reach agreement on a citywide janitorial contract.

Bill Ragen, national director of the SEIU's Justice for Janitors Campaign, called the 10-year organizing effort in Washington "the Beirut of the labor movement." If cooperation leads to an agreement, he said the union would try the peace tactic in other cities.

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Washington Post
Publication Date: 
June 17, 1997