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Labor Plans New Focus as Kirkland Is Shown Door : Unions: AFL-CIO to hold first contested election in century. Leaders seek to restore movement's enfeebled influence.

August 02, 1995|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — After 16 years as president of the AFL-CIO, 73-year-old Lane Kirkland retired Tuesday, forced out by a coalition of 26 unions, including four that he coaxed into the venerable labor federation.

When Kirkland left an executive council meeting at the Drake Hotel to literally go fishing--in Wyoming--his departure set up the first contested campaign for AFL-CIO leadership in more than a century and unleashed a storm of proposals for aggressive measures to try to restore clout to the enfeebled union movement.

Kirkland's heir-apparent and loyal deputy, Thomas Donahue, was chosen by a 21-12 vote to fill out his predecessor's term. But in less than three months, he will face insurgent John Sweeney of the Service Employees International Union at the biennial AFL-CIO convention in New York. There, each of the organization's 78 unions is allotted a weighted vote according to its membership, and Sweeney says he already has enough to clinch the election.

Whoever wins, the American public can expect to see a redoubled effort on organizing, attention given to representing part-time and temporary workers and women in the top ranks for the first time ever.

Donahue's running mate, Barbara Easterling of the Communications Workers of America, took his place Tuesday in the No. 2 spot, secretary-treasurer.

Sweeney's ticket includes Richard Trumka, president of the United Mine Workers, for secretary-treasurer, and Linda Chavez-Thompson, a vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, as executive vice president, a proposed new slot.

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The most visible change, each candidate has pledged, will be a new emphasis on seeking the spotlight as a voice for the nation's working people.

Indeed, the biggest complaint about Kirkland--an art collector who quotes Latin, Lenin and sea metaphors with equal ease--seems to boil down to this: He won't go on TV.

"The guy refuses to be a public figure," said one highly placed staffer for one of the unions that helped push Kirkland out after he'd already announced his reelection bid.

The criticism is shorthand for a widespread feeling that Kirkland had grown badly out of touch with a fast-changing society that has left just 15.5% of the American work force represented by unions.

Even Easterling says that while she was appalled by what she calls "the cruelty" of Kirkland's unusually public ouster, "I'm glad Lane is retiring."

With both sides promising dramatic action, the campaign, like the recent spate of union mergers, can be read either as labor's last gasp or labor's last chance.

"It's about labor trying to keep from disappearing," said Chicago labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan. "The great appeal of Kirkland to union presidents is he'd leave their turf alone. If this were normal times, they'd put a Lane Kirkland clone back in. They're scared."

Gerald McEntee, the AFSCME president who organized the dump-Kirkland forces, agreed. "We're not looking for measured change. We're looking for dramatic change," he said. "We're looking for forceful change."

There is little doubt that American workers have less control over the terms and conditions of their employment than they have had in a quarter of a century or longer. Job security, health benefits and pensions have been slipping even as productivity has soared.

But the question facing organized labor is whether Americans can be persuaded that unions are the vehicle that can best reverse those trends.

And the question facing the AFL-CIO is how best to coordinate the courtship of the workers.

"There is a lot the AFL-CIO can do," said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. "They speak for 14 million unionized Americans. They have tremendous moral authority that's not really being fully taken advantage of."

A 1994 consultants' study commissioned by the AFL-CIO reported that participants in focus groups spoke of "old, white men with cigars and Cadillacs" in connection with the organization. The people in the groups frequently used the word "dinosaurs."

Such disparagement has apparently been taken to heart.

In his inaugural speech Tuesday, Donahue told an assemblage of union officials that "the workplace is changing and we have not kept up. The workplace is a different place and we have not sufficiently adapted. The political order we face is an entirely new one and we're not yet fully geared up to meet its challenges."

He promised to train 1,500 new organizers for AFL-CIO unions, to "make diversity a top priority," to be "the public face and voice of labor," to appear at monthly union hall meetings and to enforce a code of ethics.

He also promised retribution for politicians who seek labor support but do not offer theirs in turn, singling out U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), for voting against increasing the minimum wage.

(Kerrey, in a telephone interview, said he'd been voting on a procedural resolution and was unaware that it included a motion to table the bill. "I am a strong supporter of the minimum wage, and the AFL-CIO is well aware of my support," he said, adding: "I don't respond to threats.")

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"I thought it was a great speech," said Sweeney afterward. "It sounds like I wrote the first draft." Indeed, he had made most of the same points at a press conference 5 1/2 hours before.

And so for now, there is little of substance for the candidates to debate. Still, "I think it's one of the most healthy things that could happen to the labor movement," said Jim Wood, secretary-treasurer of the the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "Prior to this, the leadership was often picked without them having to say what their plans were."

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