Can labor survive another rupture?

Mine was what you might call a union family. My widowed mother was sustained by David Dubinsky's Garment Workers Union.

My brother organized social workers in St. Louis. Aunt Ethel was in the Hat Makers' Union.

I was an early member of the American Newspaper Guild, and thus came to witness the first great rupture in the house of labor.

The big industrial unions - coal, steel, auto - began to challenge the domination of the long-established craft unions - carpenters, plumbers, and electricians.

Finally, in 1935, an intemperate John L. Lewis, head of the Miners, stormed out of the AFL convention in Atlantic City after an altercation on the floor.

He sent a curt letter of resignation as vice president to the president, Bill Green, and later he pulled the Miners out of the federation with a four-word message: "Green, we disaffiliate. Lewis."

So was born the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In the Newspaper Guild, we elite journalists had to open our ranks to clerical and even maintenance workers, which ultimately strengthened our hand in contract negotiations with newspaper proprietors.

The AFL and the CIO coexisted for 20 years, until 1955. And with Green and Lewis then both gone, succeeded by a more forward-looking George Meany and Walter Reuther, unity returned to the house of labor and gave some reality to the union song "Solidarity Forever."

But time has not stood still for organized labor. The ratio of union members in the total work force is down to 12.5 percent from 24 percent in 1973.

The service sector has been growing, and the blue collar no longer dominates the employment scene.

The biggest union in the AFL-CIO was the Service Union, headed by the dynamic Andrew Stern.

Now it is out of the federation, and with the disaffection of the Teamsters, organized labor has suffered a grievous blow.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, which has lost $20 million in membership dues, says that "this is not the time to be divided," and he promised to do "everything in our power to get back together."

The question is: Will organized labor manage, as it did a half-century ago, to adjust to new conditions and come together again?

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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