NEW YORK — IF you wonder where the US labor movement is headed, the clearest picture may come from a recent morning rush-hour blockade of the Roosevelt Bridge in Washington, D.C.
Leading that Sept. 20 march of unionized janitors - which angered thousands of motorists - was John Sweeney, a onetime grave digger who at the time was a candidate to lead the powerful AFL-CIO. Now president, he is moving the organization toward using confrontation rather than conciliation as a tool to regain lost union clout.
The newly aggressive stance, backed this week at the labor federation's annual convention, is part of a sweeping program aimed at self-rejuvenation. But the plan for ''in-your-face'' civil disobedience is the most controversial initiative, both inside and outside the federation.
Labor frequently turned to strong-arm tactics during the first six decades of this century. Since then it has sought influence largely through lobbying, organizing, and strikes. Now, as both wages and union membership continue to fall, many activists have chosen street-level confrontation as a way to gain attention and concessions from employers.
High-profile protests helped Sweeney double the rolls at the Service Employees International Union, for example, which he led for 15 years.
But his plan also has its critics, one of the harshest being former AFL-CIO president Thomas Donahue. Workers ''are not answering the call to arms because the war the trumpets call them to is too dangerous for them,'' Mr. Donahue told the convention. Excessive belligerence ''will marginalize us and consign us to the fringes of society for generations to come.''
Donahue especially criticized civil disobedience that antagonizes the broader public, such as the Washington blockade.
''Those kinds of acts backfire by lowering the standing of labor in public opinion; what we need to do is target management,'' says Michael Goodwin, president of the Office and Professional Employees International Union.
Many union delegates disagree.
''If George Washington had worried about antagonizing the public, we'd still be under the British flag,'' said Donald Dileo, a leader of the Mercer Country Labor Union, an organization largely of public employees in Trenton, N.J. ''I hope we're entering a new era of confrontation and I'm going to go back home and encourage that at the local level.''
The federation's new defiance arises from an explosive mix of fear and resentment, according to activists at the convention. Unions have grown increasingly anxious about the erosion in membership over the past three decades. Moreover, because unionists believe laws inadequately protect their rights, they feel little inhibition in engaging in illegal forms of protest when lawful tactics have failed, these activists say.
As the federation tallied ballots at a midtown hotel on Wednesday, as if on cue across town more than 200 union delegates, organized laborers, and members of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union staged a modest act of civil disobedience.
Chanting ''Box Tree, Shut 'Em Down; New York is a Union Town,'' 11 strikers and their supporters sat down and blocked traffic before the Box Tree, a restaurant in the tony neighborhood of Turtle Bay. After a few minutes police arrested the protesters and hustled them away in paddy wagons.
''Unions see their numbers declining and they're desperate to do whatever is necessary to turn the numbers around,'' said Jacques Catafago, an attorney for the restaurant. Box Tree managers refuse to sign a contract with unionized employees, who walked out in December 1993.
But reviving its membership is not the only goal, says Stephen Lerner from the AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute. ''When employers drive wages down and violate the law, workers have to respond,'' he says, ''and increasingly workers will consider civil disobedience as the way to do that.''