Future of Labor Unions Pivots on Kirkland Fight

By James L. Tyson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 5, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Future of Labor Unions Pivots on Kirkland Fight

James L. Tyson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor

'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.

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