WHEN 20 national labor unions, representing more than 50 percent of the AFL-CIO's membership announced their opposition to yet another term for Lane Kirkland as president of the AFL-CIO, it was akin to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. There had not been a challenge to a sitting AFL-CIO president since the 1890s. Although Mr. Kirkland has now withdrawn from the race, he initially asked for a ninth term and said: "This is what I do. I don't do anything else." But Kirkland did not have a program, a vision, or a real constituency. His plea was an inadequate response to the problems labor unions face.
The labor movement has been in serious trouble for many years with plummeting membership, erosion of power, greatly reduced influence, and diminished public esteem. Kirkland's 16-year tenure has not stopped the decline. Moreover, the floor under American workers has collapsed. There has been a sharp reduction in high-wage, blue-collar jobs and a globalization of the marketplace. Increasingly, American corporations go abroad and fly only the flag of profit.
It is time to reinvent the labor movement. A strong democracy that stands for the common good requires a vigorous and progressive labor movement. The aforementioned 20 unions have taken the first step in opposing Kirkland's reelection as president. However, the first step is the easy one. "I don't see anyone with any new ideas," says Kirkland supporter Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Well, here are some "new ideas."
FIRST, national union presidents should be elected directly by their memberships by secret ballot - not by delegates at a convention. Direct elections would engage, motivate, and politicize the rank and file. And they might produce more accountable, committed, and stronger leadership. The Teamsters and the Mine Workers were notoriously corrupt and impervious to the needs of their members before direct elections were imposed on them by rank-and-file reformers and the federal government. These unions now have honest, creative, energetic, and principled leadership.
Second, it is time to merge at least one-third of the 83 affiliates of the AFL-CIO. There are too many small and weak unions that lack the clout to effectively represent their members. They often compete in organizing the same workers, sometimes even raiding each other for new members. The recently announced merger between the Rubber Workers and the Steelworkers, as well as the earlier merger between the Ladies Garment Workers and the Clothing-Textile Workers, is encouraging.
Third, all affiliates of the AFL-CIO must launch major organizing drives throughout the nation. No region or industry should be ignored. Union pension funds should be used to hire idealistic, talented organizers - men and women of all colors. Spouses and children of union members should also be organized into auxiliaries. Most Americans do not belong to any political organization and need a place to have a genuine political discussion. Enlarged unions and auxiliaries could fill that void.
Finally, the labor movement must change its own culture. New ideas must not be labeled as "radical" and dissenters must not be marginalized. An open and extensive dialogue is needed. More unions should begin to root out corruption. The AFL-CIO Executive Council must reflect union membership and include more than a few token women and minorities. It is time for union newspapers to open up their pages to different points of view and to take seriously their job of educating and serving their readers. Unions should take the lead in developing a global code of conduct for the foreign operations of US corporations.
There are many other "new ideas." Democracy will help to bring them out and revitalize the labor movement.