Future of Labor Unions Pivots on Kirkland Fight

'BIG Labor" is on the march again. But this time, the wrath is not aimed at corporate management but against its own leadership.

Dissidents within the AFL-CIO, the umbrella labor federation, are mobilizing an aggressive, expanding campaign to bring down AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland.

It is the most profound and bruising power struggle the American labor movement has seen in 40 years. More than half of the AFL-CIO membership - including the autoworker, teamster, mineworker, and steelworker unions - is moving to oust Mr. Kirkland at the federation's next convention in October.

The outcome could alter future negotiating tactics and the influence of 13 million workers from 83 member unions bound by contract to thousands of companies.

More important, who controls the AFL-CIO may determine whether organized labor can reverse its steady decline toward irrelevance at both the workplace and the ballot box, labor experts say. Since 1953, the proportion of unionized private sector workers has eroded from 36 percent to about 7 percent.

The Kirkland revolt involves two clashing views of how unions can best serve workers. Kirkland reveres the timeworn strategies of industrial, blue-collar unions; his critics favor innovative efforts to rally white-collar office employees and "pink- collar" service workers.

Moreover, Kirkland has sustained the dominance of white males in the AFL-CIO membership, say labor experts, even as his critics say the most eager union recruits are among women and minorities.

"Kirkland is from an old school in terms of how American labor faces problems and faces challenges. He is not prepared to change, and he is not prepared to accept and embrace different attitudes," says Gerald McEntee, a spokesman for dissident unions and president of the 1.2-million-member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Toward flexibility

The AFL-CIO has to "be more flexible and innovative; that doesn't occur when the leadership's mind is in the 1930s," says Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Mr. Kirkland, who is seeking his ninth two-year term as president, did not respond to several requests for an interview. Indeed, Kirkland's critics say his open aversion to the news media is one reason he is unfit for the job. He is openly hostile toward sound bites and pat analysis.

Raised in a cotton-mill town in South Carolina, Kirkland has worked as a labor organizer since graduating from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in 1948. He is pensive and reticent, preferring to duck out of public view and build consensus behind closed doors, say his associates.

Judging by the overarching value Kirkland attaches to consensus, the internal insurrection is an especially ominous sign of union weakness.

"I believe very strongly that we have only one source of strength and really only one, and that is internal solidarity," Kirkland told the Washington Times in 1991. His opponents plan to propose a new leadership slate by mid-June, Mr. McEntee says.

Leaders of the union revolt say that retiring Kirkland would clear the way for efforts to revitalize the labor movement: They would devote more time, money, and innovation to organizing workers; widely publicize a roster of concrete goals for improving the livelihood of working Americans; elect a charismatic and outgoing AFL-CIO president; make the administration of the AFL-CIO more transparent to grass-roots union members; redouble efforts to appeal to female, minority, and young workers; and strengthen legislative and political campaigns.

The AFL-CIO would push itself to the forefront of the nation's social and political agenda and claim a higher proportion of the work force, says Mr. McEntee, who speaks for the Committee for New Leadership at the AFL-CIO, the group of dissident union leaders.

Yet some analysts say dissidents have made Kirkland a scapegoat for fundamental problems that would not be solved by his overthrow.

"There's nobody else to blame - Lane Kirkland is the head guy so it's handy to blame him," says Peter Feuille, a professor at the University of Illinois Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations in Urbana-Champaign. Replacing Kirkland will not suddenly reverse the shrinkage in the numbers of organized labor, he says.

Regardless of what happens to Kirkland, organizers must find new creative ways to rally American workers, say labor leaders and experts.

Unions must shift their theoretical underpinnings and approach workers as diverse individuals with complex, overlapping interests rather than as a collective, blue-collar mass.

"The unions have not managed to move from a very collective-rights view to a more individual-rights view," says Mr. Freeman, who is now a visiting professor at the London School of Economics.

For example, labor leaders in Britain recognize that "the next century will be the century of individuals, not of the old collective factory-worker types," he says.

British labor leaders have retooled organizing to satisfy workers who use computers. This expanding sector is more specialized and autonomous than are the workers in heavy industry who once dominated the labor force. Such an approach would help US unions rally the large proportion of white-collar and pink-collar workers not yet unionized, says Freeman.

To reverse their decline, US unions must also profoundly change their front-line organizing, experts say. An example of the direction a new AFL-CIO leadership might take is found in the AFSCME efforts in Illinois to increase union membership among workers at mental health facilities.

Unique effort

The AFSME is trying to sidestep the difficulty of staging union elections for some 15,000 employees in more than 300 private facilities for the mentally disabled in Illinois. High worker turnover and employer opposition would complicate AFSME efforts to launch the union by conventional organizing methods, says Tracey Abman, director of the campaign.

"Our effort is unique because we are organizing workers to behave like a union before they even have become a union," says Steve Trossman, a spokesman for AFSME in Chicago.

In Illinois, AFSME's approach is to build a coalition of community leaders and politicians behind a compelling moral issue that employers will be hard put to resist. It casts its campaign for decent working conditions and a fair, uniform package of wages and benefits as a way to improve conditions for the mentally disabled. The union asserts that better pay would reduce the high turnover of caregivers that hampers the progress of patients. The union also seeks to ensure an adequate ratio of caregivers to patients.

Through its strategy, AFSME builds credibility by winning concrete advances for workers before it asks them to join the union in a work-site vote, says Tiffany Hamilton, a union organizer at United Cerebral Palsy in Joliet, Ill.

"After we have a number of social successes we will move into the actual organizing," McEntee says. "This is a whole different kind of a concept that we see as a model for other organizing campaigns," he says.

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