At crucial meeting, AFL-CIO leaders aim to turn labor around. They want more members and a friendlier Congress

The AFL-CIO, the coalition of major labor unions representing 13.1 million US workers, is trying to chart a new course. But it's unclear how far the federation will get next week, when its executive council holds its midwinter meeting in Bal Harbour, Fla.

It ``could be one of the most significant meetings in recent years,'' says Gerald McEntee, head of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. ``We will consider many proposals to strengthen the labor movement.''

Labor observers are unsure how specific those proposals will be. ``Where they are now is testing the commitment of the various international unions'' to the proposals, adds Thomas Kochan, industrial relations professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Faced with serious losses in membership and political and legislative influence, the federation outlined a broad survival program at its biennial convention last fall. But its proposals were left vague -- in part to blunt possible opposition from convention delegates.

Specifics of the program -- left to the executive council -- faces scattered opposition. For example, the program calls for extending unionism to low-wage, traditionally unorganized workers. But some of the federation's 98 unions fear losses of power within an expanded AFL-CIO. Another proposal extending benefits to a new category of associate members, not covered by traditional contracts, is also opposed by some.

``We're not big advocates of this associate-member thing,'' says Al Zack, spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers. ``Our basic belief is: The union should do something for people on the job.'' Nevertheless, the program is expected to win approval in one form or another, labor observers say.

Several major problems will require stronger and more positive action by all unions this year. Among them are:

Restoring labor's lost membership strength. Although some major unions have begun recouping lost numerical strength, labor generally is hard-pressed to avoid further membership losses. The United Steelworkers, for example, gained 15,500 new members last year -- their best organizing drive in six years. But losses of its already-organized workers have outweighed the gains.

Reestablishing political power. Although AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education (COPE) campaigned hard against Ronald Reagan's reelection, polls revealed that he won major support from union members and their families. At the same time, labor made fewer gains than it felt it needed in congressional races.

Next week, representatives of almost all AFL-CIO union political action committees will meet with COPE leaders in Bal Harbour to coordinate one of AFL-CIO's most ambitious -- and perhaps most costly -- political campaigns -- to seat a new and friendlier Congress in 1987 and to build a firmer foundation for the next presidential race.

``That's an issue they'll place a lot of emphasis on,'' says Harvey Friedman, director of the labor relations and research center at the University of Massachusetts. It will mean continuing strong criticism of President Reagan in his second administration, even though labor has improved relations with the President's new secretary of labor, Bill Brock.

Secretary Brock was invited to the executive council meeting -- following up on his meeting with labor leaders at last fall's AFL-CIO convention and at an earlier executive council meeting in Washington. ``It will be more of a search for where we agree, rather than where we disagree,'' a Brock spokesman says.

Although AFL-CIO is traditionally defense-minded, it can be expected to criticize a significant increase in defense spending in a budget that will slash several other labor-supported programs.

Most council members also are expected to repeat past criticism of what labor considers to be ineffective measures against rising imports. Congress, including many Democrats, will probably be criticized as well, because a number of legislative proposals backed by labor have failed -- most notably, a bill requiring employers to give 90 days' notice before closing plants or announcing major lay offs. Ed Townsend also contributed to this report.

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