New-era union leader reaches out to young workers

Labor leader Gerald McEntee has a bold proposal: Young workers should flock to unions. ``It always boggles my mind,'' he says. ``Bruce Springsteen is such an incredible attraction to the young people. When you listen to his songs, what they're all about is really what the labor movement is all about.

``I don't know if there's something there,'' Mr. McEntee adds. But as the president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), he has high hopes that union fervor will take hold among young workers.

McEntee is part of a new generation of labor leaders, a group that's more unified, more news-media-savvy, and more eager than ever to clean up labor's image and reach out to new workers. ``I don't think we have an alternative,'' he says, still red-faced from a three-mile jog during a recent labor convention in Miami Beach, Fla. ``We've got to find a way to do it.''

The labor movement is searching for new ways on several fronts.

The AFL-CIO has just launched a two-year, $13 million image-building campaign, targeted in large part to young workers. Internally, the federation is using a new procedure to settle inter-union squabbles over who should organize which workers. And, for the second time in a row, the group is keeping individual unions from making endorsements in the presidential campaign in the hopes that the AFL-CIO can rally behind a single candidate.

``I think it shows a new spirit among the unions of the AFL-CIO,'' says John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union. Mr. Sweeney is representative of the new labor leaders who have come to power during the 1980s. For example, since he was elected to the AFL-CIO executive council in 1980, more than half of the board positions have changed hands. He and other labor leaders credit AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland for fostering the sense of unity and forward movement.

AFSCME (pronounced AFFS-me in union circles) is one of the pace-setters of that new movement. Though it represents only public-sector workers, its 1.1 million membership mirrors the changes going on throughout the economy. Just over half of its members are women. Their workplace is usually an office, not a factory. The union has pioneered several techniques, such as polling potential members and using sophisticated media campaigns to organize new workers.

To attract the new generation of workers, AFSCME is targeting workplace issues that are of prime importance to this group: child care, parental leave, and career ladders, for example. The union is drawing praise from several observers.

``It is certainly part of the future of the labor movement,'' says Ralph Whitehead, a University of Massachusetts journalism professor and observer of the changing work force. ``I think McEntee has an excellent grasp of what a creative and forward-looking movement would look like.''

But McEntee acknowledges there are big obstacles. During the 1980s, union membership has continued to stagnate while the work force has expanded. Business and government are more inclined to take anti-union positions than in the past. The image of unions remains tarnished for many workers.

``It's still low,'' he says of labor's public standing. ``It's obviously a reason ... the labor movement has trouble organizing new workers. It's one of the reasons that we're not as politically or legislatively effective as we should be.''

To reverse this public plummet, McEntee is reaching beyond traditional union circles.

In articles for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers, he has examined the export of United States jobs overseas, the new generation of workers, and what he sees as the dangers of using private firms to do government work. In July, when the campaign against Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork was heating up, he contributed $40,000 in union funds for a national poll that revealed key weaknesses in Judge Bork's public appeal. McEntee has also been instrumental in setting up a liberal-leaning think tank.

``While so many labor leaders are feeling defensive and, you know, sort of beaten down ... McEntee is constantly reaching beyond the labor movement and looking for allies,'' says Jeff Faux, president of the new Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. ``I think he represents the next generation of labor leader that's going to be more concerned about the role of labor in shaping policy.''

McEntee himself shrugs off the new-generation label. ``I don't know that `new breed' is the term,'' he says. ``I've been in it for 30 years.''

His father, William McEntee, joined the union in its early days. He headed a Philadelphia local whose 1938 garbage strike eventually led to the first collective bargaining agreement between AFSCME and a major city. The younger McEntee joined as a union organizer 20 years later and, in 1981, was narrowly elected AFSCME president. Colleagues and friends says McEntee's union roots run strong.

``Jerry McEntee is holding fast to his ideals with the clear conviction that there will come a time when the American public will accept these ideals,'' says Boston pollster Tom Kiley, who has worked for McEntee. But ``as the leader of a union that represents more white-collar workers than blue-collar workers and more women than men, he really sees himself in the forefront of organizing the new service worker.''

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