'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"
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).
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,
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
"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. …