Leadership changes in three major independent unions could help new AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland solidify the US labor movement in his first term as successor to George Meany.
If he succeeds, the new unity could have important implications for business and government: Organized labor will be stronger and can be even more aggressive.
Mr. Kirkland made unification of organized labor's divided ranks a top priority when he took over the federation's top office last November. In the three months since he extended to independent unions an invitation to reaffiliate with the AFL-CIO he has held "exploratory" talks with officials of the trucking, auto, and coal miner unions.
All three -- and other nonaffiliated unions -- are studying the pros and cons of reaffiliation. While no decisions are likely soon, some, if not all, of the independents are likely to return to AFL- CIO's "house of labor" within the next year or so.
The federation now is struggling to regain lost momentum and political influence. The membership of its 120 unions -- 13.6 million -- would rise above 17.5 million if the most important reaffiliations come through. This would greatly strengthen the AFL-CIO's power in national economic policymaking and it could change labor's relations with business: The prospects disturb many corporate offices.
Here is the situation now:
* Mr. Kirkland has held three private meetings with Frank Fitzsimmons, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, regarding its possible return to the AFL-CIO. A federation committee now has been set up to meet with a teamsters' committee on terms for reaffiliation -- terms that would include an executive council seat for Mr. Fitzsimmons or another top officer of the union.
* The United Automobile Workers left the AFL-CIO in 1967 as a result of dissatisfaction with Mr. Meany's policies. The federation door has been opened to the UAW since then, but auto union leaders who sided with Walter Reuther, then president of the union, in his withdrawal decision, blocked reaffiliation.
Now Emil Mazey, secretary-treasurer of the UAW, who has argued that paying per-capita dues to the AFL-CIO would waste money, and five or six other UAW leaders who oppose reaffiliation, will leave the UAW board in June. Whether or when the UAW reaffiliates with the AFL-CIO will depend on their successors.
* New United Mine Workers president Sam Church Jr. in a short time has greatly improved the previously disorganized union's prospects within its industry and the labor movement. Mr. Kirkland and Mr. Church have had "friendly discussions" about the miners' return. No quick moves are expected.
The UMW's rank-and-file members are fiercely independent, and Mr. Church must solidify their support for their own union before consideration can be given to returning to the AFL-CIO.
Eventually, reaffiliation is likely.