IF there was one theme at the AFL-CIO convention in Manhattan this week, it was sweeping change. John Sweeney was elected president by promising to rejuvenate a labor movement struggling to attract new members and win political battles. It was an important election, not only because it was the first to be contested in the federation's 40-year history, but because of the open debate and fresh ideas that came from it.
But the acrimonious campaign also drove a wedge between union leaders who can't afford anything less than total solidarity. Supporters of Thomas Donahue, who had been serving as interim president since former president Lane Kirkland retired under pressure in August, should heed their candidate's words: Mr. Donahue called for unity - no matter what the outcome of the election.
The first positive step in that direction came when the two sides reached a compromise over the size of the executive council, agreeing to increase the number of seats to 53, including 10 to be set aside for women and minorities. The convention also approved a contentious proposal to create a third executive position, and Mr. Sweeney installed Linda Chavez-Thompson in the new office. Her appointment ensures minority representation at the highest level.
The move was a sign that union officials have finally recognized they'll have to open their ranks to women, minorities, and young people if organized labor is going to have any chance at gaining more influence.
But while Sweeney ran on a platform of greater inclusion, he also advocated a return to a confrontational approach to organizing. He speaks from experience: Before winning the AFL-CIO presidency, he was head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which doubled its membership in part through aggressive organizing drives that sometimes used acts of civil disobedience.
SEIU is perhaps best known for its in-your-face ''Justice for Janitors'' campaign, which organized 35,000 janitors in several cities. For example, union organizers blocked Washington bridges, snarling morning rush-hour traffic.
Though it appears to have worked for the SEIU, the move toward aggressive, confrontational organizing could backfire on the national level by alienating the middle-class, white-collar workers the movement needs to attract. Labor must get a larger segment of the population listening to it, not turning away. It doesn't help that Sweeney has promised more confrontation with employers. What's needed are unions that foster cooperation between management and workers.
The AFL-CIO will rise or fall on its ability to recruit, organize, and meet the needs of workers - and to hang together. Sweeney pledged to remember that the labor movement ''grows by addition and multiplication, and not division and subtraction.'' For the movement to survive, union leaders must hold him to that promise.
A move toward confrontational organizing could backfire by alienating white-collar workers.