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Kirkland Sees Labor Making Comeback : Cites Growing Strength, Solidarity and 'Voice That Will Be Heard'

October 27, 1987|HENRY WEINSTEIN | Times Labor Writer

MIAMI BEACH — With the end of the Reagan era approaching, America's workers are "on the road again to a resurgent labor movement, with growing numbers, stronger organizations, deeper solidarity and a voice that will be heard," AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland asserted here Monday.

In his keynote address on the opening day of the 12.7-million-member labor federation's biennial convention, Kirkland cited several recent organizing victories, a more friendly political climate in the Senate and the defeat of President Reagan's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Robert H. Bork, as signs that labor's fortunes are improving.

He introduced key figures in several recent labor victories, including a union organizer from Tennessee and the coordinator of the successfully concluded Coors boycott.

Kirkland also presented an air-traffic controller who was fired by Reagan during the ill-fated 1981 strike, which has been a major symbol of labor decline in the last decade.

The controller, John F. Thornton, is now the executive director of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., a new union the controllers voted to have represent them in June, Kirkland said with obvious satisfaction.

On the other hand, Kirkland, 65, also acknowledged a highly visible setback that organized labor suffered this month--the stunning defeat of the National Football League players' strike. But he called on delegates to give a standing ovation to Gene Upshaw, who heads the players' association.

"We are proud of the solidarity you displayed under the most trying circumstances, including all of the pressures, insults, blandishments and inducements to treachery, that the cynical club owners, backed by the giant networks, could think of," Kirkland said.

Later, in his lengthy address, he attacked the President's economic and social policies and predicted that the nation's voters would elect a Democrat for President next year.

Labor has had little to cheer in the Reagan era. The 89 unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO have lost more than a million members since 1981, many of them because of plant closings or layoffs stemming from technological changes or competition from imports. Some of these problems--such as the decline of the domestic steel industry, resulting in hundreds of thousands of lost jobs--started, however, before Reagan came into office and are not expected to abate when his term ends.

Robert Harbrant, director of the AFL-CIO's Food and Allied Services Trades Department, said he thought the federation would soon be in a better position to launch large, coordinated organizing drives now that the rival Teamsters Union is coming back into the federation after a 30-year absence. This is expected to bring an end to years of battles between a host of AFL-CIO unions and the Teamsters for the right to represent workers in a variety of industries. "I really see it as the beginning of a new era of organizing," he said.

Although warfare with the Teamsters may be coming to an end, another internecine battle erupted here Monday. Representatives of a group of strikers who lost their jobs in a bitter strike at George A. Hormel & Co. in Austin, Minn., last year came to the convention at the Fontainbleau Hotel to distribute leaflets once again accusing William H. Wynn, the national president of their union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, of sabotaging the strike and abandoning them.

Wynn has said the strikers' tactics were suicidal and put the Austin local in trusteeship last year. None of the strikers has regained a job at the plant, which is now operating with a smaller work force.

On Monday, Louis DeFrieze, president of a Food and Commercial Workers local in Davenport, Iowa, who was critical of the strike, punched Jim Guyette, former president of the Austin, Minn., local when he saw him handing out leaflets in the lobby. After a shouting match, Guyette left the hotel but indicated he would be back later in the week.

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