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What's ahead for AFL-CIO and Lane Kirkland after 'honeymoon' year

By Ed TownsendLabor correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 1981



Lane Kirkland's first year as president of the AFL-CIO was a 12-month honeymoon. But that doesn't mean 1980 was necessarily a good year for organized labor. Unions lost ground because of the troubled economy and high unemployment, and they lost political support.

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Under the circumstances, labor's second-echelon leaders generally feel Mr. Kirkland and his secretary-treasurer, Thomas Donahue, did about as well as could be expected. They will, however, be looking for more aggressive leadership in 1981 from the new team at the top.

Kirkland assumed the AFL-CIO presidency when George Meany retired in November 1979. The Meany era that had spanned a half-century ended a month later with the passing of the man who had headed the labor federation since the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged in 1955.

As AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, Kirkland had worked closely with Meany, and the succession was smooth.

After a year in office, Kirkland's position in the AFL-CIO seems secure. Nobody has yet emerged as a serious challenger for the presidency of the 13.6 million-member federation of more than 100 unions.

But there is some quibbling about a lack of real accomplishments in 1980 and questions about leadership toward new goals and policies in a post-Meany period.

Kirkland has made some changes. He led successful efforts to open the AFL-CIO's executive counsel to a woman member for the first time. And he has set the stage for broader-based political efforts in the future, including AFL- CIO participation in presidential primaries. The new president also has moved the federation a little further toward closer and stronger relations with labor movements in other countries.

Many members of the council and heads of some of the federation's larger unions had hoped that Kirkland would turn the AFL-CIO toward more liberal stances on domestic issues. Generally, Meany was a traditionalist, more interested in economic than social affairs.

They had also hoped to see Kirkland throw more of the AFL-CIO's resources and efforts into wholesale organizing campaigns in support of affiliated unions. Recently, organizing has been at a virtual standstill and unions have been losing members.

When the AFL-CIO's executive council meets in Bal Harbour, Fla., in mid-February, pressures may be applied to the year-old leadership to step up its activities; there is talk of moves to "revitalize" the federation, perhaps to orient it a little to the left of where it is now.

Few doubt that this will happen if, as now expected, the United Automobile Workers union rejoins the AFL-CIO this spring or summer. The UAW would become a powerful part of a liberal or progressive bloc within the federation.

Building trades unions, conservative and often Republican, already are tightening ranks to support their views. And government unions and those in service trades also are closing ranks. There is no infighting yet, but there is a growing potential for it.

Whether the AFL-CIO leaders and unions continue to pull together depends to a large extent on the ability of Kirkland to maintain unity in a 1981 campaign "to deal adequately and forcefully with the challenges of the future" -- a goal he set in early December.

The AFL-CIO in 1981 will observe the centennial of American organized labor. In 1881, American labor unions joined together to form the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, a forerunner of today's labor movement.

The federation plans a year-long centennial celebration, to be launched in January and to reach a climax at its biennial convention in New York next November.

Kirkland is calling on all organized workers and their unions to "reach out for new and better ways to serve all working people and the entire nation. . . . Together, I am confident we shall succeed," he says.

The immediate future of the AFL-CIO and of Kirkland will depend on that success.