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AFL-CIO Seeks to Widen Ranks : Convention Likely to OK Associate Memberships

October 27, 1985|HARRY BERNSTEIN | Times Labor Writer

The 13.2-million-member AFL-CIO will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its formation at its convention that begins in Anaheim Monday by inaugurating a series of programs that union leaders say could add hundreds of thousands--perhaps millions--of associate members to organized labor's ranks.

The nearly 1,000 delegates to the biennial convention are expected to give overwhelming approval to the new programs that were first conceived in a special "evolution of work" committee report issued last year.

The federation envisions associate members as workers who might be willing to affiliate with a union even though they are not covered by a union contract.

Presidential Endorsements

The delegates are also certain to give full backing once again to the policy of endorsing a presidential candidate before the political parties nominate their own candidates, federation officials said.

The federation first did so in 1983 at the instigation of AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, endorsing former Vice President Walter F. Mondale. Mondale lost by a huge margin to President Reagan, leading some critics to contend that unions should abandon the tactic.

Previously, individual affiliates of the labor federation usually battled one another by endorsing different candidates in the presidential primaries. After the major-party conventions, the federation, with rare exception, would then almost automatically throw its support to the nominee of the Democratic Party.

But this process excluded the labor federation from playing a major role in the choice of the nominee.

Emphasis on Solidarity

The AFL-CIO Executive Council Saturday unanimously adopted a resolution declaring that while its choice in the 1984 election obviously did not win, "the solidarity demonstrated by labor made it clear that we will no longer permit others to name the (presidential) candidate and determine the issues without the full participation of working men and women."

The pre-primary endorsement will be made again for the 1988 election if the affiliated unions--as they did in 1983--give a two-thirds majority to one presidential hopeful.

Before that next test of strength, however, the federation is again asking all of its affiliated unions to refrain from making a public endorsement of any candidate.

At present, there is no candidate likely to get the federation endorsement. Individual union leaders have a wide variety of their own preferences, including such potential candidates as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Smaller Percentage

The plan to recruit associate membership to swell labor's ranks stems, in part at least, from the fact that union membership has taken a dramatic drop as a percent of the national work force.

Specific plans for the associate membership program, drawn up from general recommendations from the federation, have been prepared for the convention in a report by Washington-based Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc.

Even though the actual number of union members has remained relatively stable over the years, union members now make up less than 20% of the work force, down from a high of 35% in 1955.

There are millions of former members and potential new members who might affiliate with a union even if they are not covered by a formal union contract, the Hart report said. When a union loses a representation election by, for example, a vote of 500 to 400, those 400 union sympathizers are obviously potential associate members.

Advantage in Benefits

These workers, while not represented in collective bargaining by a union, might be attracted by the benefits the massed purchasing power of a large organization could offer them, the report said.

The unions, in effect, would offer associate memberships for a relatively small fee to provide associate members with benefits ranging from medical and auto insurance and credit cards to prescription drugs and dental plans.

The benefits would also be available to union members, but would be an addition to the benefits they now get under their union contracts.

Somewhat analogous to the proposal is the organizational structure of the American Assn. of Retired Persons, which charges its estimated 17 million members $5 a year for a similar variety of services. The AARP also provides information and assistance designed specifically for retired workers.

Insurance Programs

The AFL-CIO estimates that among its present members, at least 2 million will purchase one or more of the insurance plans envisioned in the Hart report.

The concept of a credit card benefit to be offered has already been explored with credit card companies. MasterCard, for one, has indicated "a willingness and ability to begin testing by February, 1986, the appeal to members of a union-sponsored card that would bear the name of the individual's union."

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