NEW YORK — US labor today seeks renewal by electing a new AFL-CIO president, but its renaissance may depend largely on people like Gertrude Monroe.
Ms. Monroe works as a nurse's aide at a South Bronx nursing home serving meals, tucking in patients, and helping lead what she calls a ''militant'' local of a service-workers' union. A black woman who immigrated from Jamaica in 1971, she is just one of a legion of dishwashers, garment sewers, and other menial laborers who illustrate why minorities and women join unions faster than any other groups and offer hope for a rejuvenated labor movement.
Just 30 hours after beginning a strike last July, Monroe and her more than 500 co-workers watched their employer present a contract offering much better pay and benefits. Monroe also credits her union with helping to temper race and sex discrimination by both workers and management.
''There is no way we could stop discrimination without the union,'' says Monroe, a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Although many unions have historically been slow to integrate, some are now capitalizing on the importance of such concerns as bias to their small but burgeoning minority membership.
''When we get together as workers - black and white - we realize we're all pretty much the same, with the same needs. The union definitely helps bring black and white people together,'' Monroe says.
William Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, says that ''where there is open dialogue and a cooperative spirit, the tensions and fears are allayed.''
The AFL-CIO has apparently discovered the payoff from reaching out to workers like Monroe. During four months of heated campaigning, both candidates for federation president - acting president Thomas Donahue and SEIU president John Sweeney - have pledged to intensify organizing among women and minority workers and usher them into the federation leadership.
''The secret to our success, and the greatest potential for organizing, is among women, people of color, and young workers,'' Sweeney told the Monitor at the start of a four-day convention in New York ending Oct. 26.
''We have to open up the AFL-CIO at all levels ... and women and minority members are an important part of our movement,'' says Mr. Sweeney. Among the 78 federated unions, Sweeney claims 55 percent of delegate votes.
Mr. Donahue echoes his rival: ''We have to resolve to open up our leadership so that the face of the labor movement truly will be the face of America,'' he says.
Recruiting low-wage workers is not a simple task. Many are immigrants who face significant language and cultural barriers. And since many hold two or three jobs, they have little time to participate in union activity.
Nevertheless, the federation's enthusiasm for diversity arises in large part from a desire for self-preservation. While the membership rolls have steadily shrunk in recent decades, the proportion of organized workers who are minorities and women has steadily grown.
White male membership has slumped from 55.8 percent of organized workers in 1986 to 49.7 percent today. Meanwhile, black workers have signed onto unions in such high numbers that 21 percent of them are organized, according to the Department of Labor. (Still, blacks account for just 15.5 percent of the nation's 17 million unionized workers.)
''As I tell my colleagues on the executive council, if you can't promote diversity because it's the right thing to do, then look at the work force and recognize that you have to do it if you want to survive,'' says John Sturdivant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Indeed, many new union recruits join specifically because of racial or sex discrimination.
Miguel de la Rosa, for example, says he and many of his work mates embraced the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union after feeling the repeated sting of management bias. The Mexican-American cook and other union workers have struck at the Box Tree Restaurant in New York since December 1993. (Box Tree management did not answer a request for comment.)
Still, unions have a checkered record in integration, opening their doors largely in response to federal pressure after World War II and during the 1960s civil rights movement. Many union leaders expressed concern abou the recent scaling back of affirmative action.
A major challenge for the new federation president will be to open union doors to women and minorities without antagonizing the federation's traditional white male core, labor experts say.
''We certainly have to strive to open up more aggressively and ambitiously, but the labor movement is solidly committed to affirmative action and inclusion, and that is going to be the focal point of all of our programs,'' says Sweeney.