WASHINGTON — THE house of labor may have empty rooms and leaking roofs, but it is no longer divided against itself. As the AFL-CIO holds its 18th biennial convention here this week, it is celebrating its new-found unity. Federation president Lane Kirkland has brought back all the major unions in the last two years with two exceptions.
Last month, the United Mine Workers of America affiliated with the AFL-CIO. It joined the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which affiliated two years ago, the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (August 1988), Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (April 1989), the United Transportation Union (August 1989), and the Writers Guild of America, East, Inc. (August 1989). The two big unions still outside the federation are the National Education Association and the United Electrical Workers.
With the six newly affiliated unions as well as four mergers of unions already within the AFL-CIO, the federation now represents 90 unions. And the combined union memberships may be a record 14.1 million workers or more if the preliminary figures turn out to be accurate, says Thomas Donahue, the federation's secretary-treasurer.
``I do think we see in that an opportunity in our ability to grow,'' he says. The previous membership high was recorded in 1975, when 14.07 million workers belonged to unions represented by the AFL-CIO.
Even so, the work force has grown so much faster than the unions during that period that unions represent a smaller and smaller share of American workers. Without the reaffiliation of the 1.6 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the federation would have been near its all-time low. Figures provided by the AFL-CIO show that just under half of the federation's unions saw membership decline between 1987 and 1989 and another third of the unions saw no change. Only 16 saw any increase.
Increased solidarity is benefiting unions in a number of ways. Of special importance is the elimination of costly infighting over what union gets to represent which workers.
Interestingly, as the mainstream labor movement in the US gets its house together, some dissident movements are gaining strength. The most visible move is by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform group severely critical of the lack of militancy within the corruption-plagued Teamsters.
Other movements are taking hold as well. Earlier this fall in St. Louis, a group of dissidents from the United Automobile Workers and other unions, held a founding national convention and called for more militancy in behalf of workers. In September, the National Council of the Canadian Auto Workers adopted a policy critical of the labor management teams that are now endorsed by their American counterpart, the UAW.
``This `partnership' and its promises are false,'' the Canadian Council said in a statement. ``For all the talk about jointness and worker control, management is certainly not putting true equality between workers and their employers on the agenda.''
``I see all this as part of a general reawakening of the labor movement,'' says Victor Reuther, a leading spokesman of the US labor dissident movement. But ``we are under no illusions that you can turn around an entrenched bureaucracy in a couple months. We are in for the long haul.''
The workplace is undergoing great change, and the implications for unions aren't entirely clear, says Robert McGlotten, AFL-CIO legislative director.