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LABOR / Harry Bernstein

Kirkland Breaks New Ground for AFL-CIO

November 13, 1985|HARRY BERNSTEIN

Ever since he took office almost six years ago, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland has been gradually getting the 13.2-million-member labor federation to adopt policies and practices far different from those established by his predecessor, the late patriarch of the American labor movement, George Meany.

This new direction has not yet significantly enhanced labor's diminished role as a major power in the nation. Because of the shift away from heavily unionized smokestack industries, union membership continues to drop as a percentage of the total work force. In addition, employers are increasingly aggressive in battling workers and their unions, and the AFL-CIO is still suffering politically from the overwhelming 1984 defeat of its endorsed presidential candidate, Walter F. Mondale.

But after the soft-spoken Southern intellectual Kirkland succeeded the often acerbic former New York plumber Meany in November, 1979, the federation started a series of innovative changes--some notable by themselves and together capable of improving the future of organized labor. Meany, who was president of the AFL-CIO from the time that it was founded in 1955, still ranks as one of the most powerful figures in the history of American labor unions, speaking usually without challenge as the only authentic voice of organized labor. Without doubt, he was one of the nation's most influential leaders for nearly 40 years.

And somehow Meany maintained his one-man rule of the federation by the force of his dynamic personality. Like Kirkland, Meany had no power to punish or even chastise those who disagreed with him. In fact, leaders of unions affiliated with the labor federation really have more "clout" than the federation's president because they can pull their unions, along with their dues, out of the federation, which today is made up of 96 autonomous labor organizations.

But just listing the AFL-CIO actions since Kirkland took office shows the distance that the federation has traveled after Meany:

- From the day he became president, Kirkland has worked with considerable success to fashion a truly voluntary consensus among the nation's union leaders, bringing a unity to organized labor that it rarely enjoyed in the past. Meany could often squelch a potential critic with no more than a scowl. The chain-smoking, slow-talking Kirkland does it with often eloquent logic, and, when that fails, he seeks--and usually finds--a compromise acceptable to him and to his critics.

- AFL-CIO convention debates were almost unheard of under Meany, even on such volatile foreign policy issues as the Vietnam War. Now, affiliated unions form their own caucuses to back their points of view, send their own representatives to foreign countries and, as they did at the convention in Anaheim a few weeks ago, vigorously debate and get policy compromises that would not even have been considered at conventions run by Meany.

For instance, with Kirkland's help, a compromise was reached on a resolution that allows each affiliated union to decide whether to lobby Congress for or against aid to the contras who, with U.S. help, are trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.

That doesn't mean that Kirkland is any less passionately anti-Communist than Meany was, but, as one union leader said, "if there is anything Lane (Kirkland) feels more strongly about than his opposition to Communism, it's his drive to unite the American labor movement."

- Kirkland's drive for labor unity includes his effort to reduce the number of affiliated unions and strengthen them through mergers. Today there are only 96 affiliates, compared to 106 in 1979.

- Kirkland managed to bring the giant United Auto Workers back into the federation in 1981 after a 13-year split with the AFL-CIO, and he may soon get--for the first time--the United Mine Workers to join the federation.

- Until Kirkland's administration, AFL-CIO vice presidents were almost always picked first by Meany and then automatically elected by convention delegates. But in Anaheim, there were open contests for four vice presidential seats.

A third black vice president, Gene Upshaw, head of the Federation of Professional Athletes, was elected, and campaigning has already started for the next election in 1987, with at least one more black, William Lucy of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, given a good chance to get a post in labor's high command.

- Meany rarely met with local or regional union leaders. Kirkland, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Thomas Donahue and other top federation executives now hold regular meetings with local and regional officers across the nation.

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