Labor Slugfest over Reviving Lost Clout Donahue and Sweeney Battle to Win Support from Minorities and Women

By James L. Tyson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 23, 1995 | Go to article overview

Labor Slugfest over Reviving Lost Clout Donahue and Sweeney Battle to Win Support from Minorities and Women


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


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. …

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