THE AFL-CIO, the nation's umbrella labor federation, kicks off its national convention today while churning with its bitterest leadership struggle in history.
But amid the conflict, union delegates hope the soul-searching and creative energy generated by the top-level rivalry will ultimately unite and energize the labor movement.
The delegates on Wednesday will crown a brawling four-month campaign by electing as federation president either acting-president Thomas Donahue or service-worker leader John Sweeney.
The effort to revive the nation's largest labor organization holds implications beyond the union movement. It comes at a time when many US workers are experiencing an erosion in wages, benefits, and job security.
Irrelevance or revival?
Should the AFL-CIO fail to renew itself at the four-day conclave, a movement that has been responsible for advances like Social Security, the 40-hour work week, and abolition of child labor could sink into irrelevance, some experts say.
"If the labor movement doesn't turn around we will lose all that is good about working life in America and go back to the way it was to work in the 1920s: more on-the-job dangers, more stress, less time with family, less protection from race and sex discrimination, and less earning power," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University.
"So the AFL-CIO convention is not just about the future of the labor movement, but of life in America," she says.
But some other labor experts believe that market forces, rather than organized labor, are ultimately more beneficial for both workers and the economy.
The task of turning around Big Labor is enormous. In terms of their size and political leverage, unions are weaker than at any time since the 1920s.
They claim 10 percent of the private sector work force, just a shadow of the 36 percent in their heyday in 1953.
On the defensive
Even with a president who claims to be a friend of labor, unions have failed to beat back Republican-led efforts to blunt workplace safety laws, legalize company-sponsored unions, and other pro-business initiatives.
In recent years, they failed to deter the North American Free Trade Agreement, endorsed by President Clinton, which organized labor viewed as a long-term threat to secure jobs and solid wages. They also failed to secure passage of a bill barring businesses from hiring replacements for striking employees.
The weakness of unions seems anomalous because US labor appears especially fertile for organizing. The average hourly wage has fallen in the past 20 years. Management continues to downsize and expand the use of temporary workers.
The total compensation for organized labor is 39 percent more than for unorganized workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Moreover, several surveys reveal support among workers for representation if there are reassurances that such organizing would not lead to destructive worker-management relations.
But many workers perceive union leaders as ineffective at best, out-of-touch and corrupt at worst. Others avoid unions for fear of reprisal, say labor analysts.
According to a study by Ms. Bronfenbrenner, management defies the law and fires organizers in one out of every three union campaigns.
Despite the obstacles, Messrs Donahue and Sweeney bring to the convention cause for hope. As the rivals have clashed in the first contested election for federation president, they have shaken up the organization's stodgy bureaucracy and principles.
Most important, they have promised intensive, well-endowed organizing campaigns. They have also pledged to recast the white male face of labor leadership by reaching out to working women and members of minorities, the fastest growing sectors of union growth.
Delegates preparing for the convention in a two-day conference on how to sow diversity in the labor movement were optimistic the federation will rise again.
"Now our backs are to the wall, we are fighting for our lives, and a new labor movement is emerging that is more powerful than any since the 1940s," says Alex Hing, a cook at a New York hotel and a member of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union.
Competition from overseas
But labor confronts market forces that loom large even for the biggest, most potent of unions. Perhaps the biggest threat is rising competition from cheap foreign labor and nonunion workers at home. This is especially true for those employed in traditional factory jobs.
"We are witnessing the twilight of private-sector unionism. It will continue to decline and the AFL-CIO leadership will not be able to turn it around,'' says Leo Troy, an economics professor at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. He predicts that by the year 2000, unions will represent just 7 percent of the private sector work force, or the same level as at the beginning of this century.
Some experts disagree: "Leo Troy underestimates the desire of workers today to have an independent voice," says Bronfenbrenner, adding, "in the 1920s, people said unions were dead, but unions came back."