Thirty years later, AFL-CIO looking for answers to US labor movement decline

If it could, the American union movement might turn back the clock exactly 30 years. It was then, on Dec. 5, 1955, that officials of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations met in a New York armory and joined forces. It was the heyday of American unions -- a heyday that three decades later seems dim and distant.

Has the merged AFL-CIO fulfilled labor's hopes and dreams? In many ways, it has not, labor historians say. It certainly did not fulfill the hopes of then CIO head Walter Reuther, says Robert H. Zieger, a Wayne State University history professor whose new book on the 20th-century American labor movement will be published next spring. Mr. Reuther envisioned a great push to organize other workers and build coalitions. The CIO, weakened by its expulsion of a dozen communist-influenced unions, did get the AF L to move against union corruption, strongly enter the political arena, and endorse rhetoric -- if not action -- in favor of civil rights.

But it was clearly AFL president George Meany who left the more enduring stamp on the new organization, professor Zieger says. Elected head of the AFL-CIO, ``Meany moved quickly to make the executive board his rubber stamp,'' he says. And his pragmatic concerns -- getting fatter paychecks for workers already organized, for example -- set the tone for the labor movement for years to come, adds Zieger.

Now, with the American labor movement in disarray, the AFL-CIO leadership is reexamining that legacy, labor historians say. It is focusing on international events, has brought in a number of outside labor experts to analyze its troubles, and -- in a landmark report earlier this year -- admitted it has not kept up with the times. These are things Meany never did, Zieger says.

``Very mildly positive,'' says Harvey L. Friedman, summing up the merger's impact. According to Mr. Friedman, director of the University of Massachusetts labor center, ``it probably allowed the labor movement to survive . . . in a fairly strong position. But it isn't growing. It's decreasing in size.'' Unions now represent less than 1 out of every 5 workers, compared with 1 out of 3 in 1955.

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