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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Thomas Donahue : Locked in the Struggle to Build a Revitalized Labor Union

August 06, 1995|Harry Bernstein | Harry Bernstein covered labor issues for The Times for 32 years. He interviewed Thomas R. Donahue by phone from the labor leader's office in Washington, D.C

Organized labor is in trouble. Unions now represent fewer than one in six American workers, down from one in three during the 1950s. Meanwhile, labor's most vehement enemies now hold sway--with powerful Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress, and major employers fighting unions more furiously than they have in decades.

In an effort to combat these troubles, leaders of the 14-million member AFL-CIO are in the midst of a furious struggle for new leadership--and Thomas R. Donahue, an articulate, charming man, is at the center of that fight. As recently as a few months ago, Donahue insisted he would be retiring this year, at age 66, after serving for decades as a union activist and leader. He was secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO for the last 16 years, the second highest position in America's preemeninent labor federation, encompassing 80 autonomous unions with nearly 14 million members.

But in June, Donahue announced he would seek election as president to replace the dour Lane Kirkland, 73, the longtime union leader, who had first insisted he would run for reelection but then dropped out of the race after facing strong opposition. Last week Kirkland resigned the presidency to help Donahue, who was named interim president by the federation's 33-member executive board on Tuesday.

That was no contest, since each council member had only one vote, regardless of the size of the member's union, and most small unions supported Kirkland's choice, Donahue. His real challenge will come in October at the AFL-CIO convention in New York where his opponent will be John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees Union. Sweeney claims he will have nearly 60% of the votes of the convention delegates, since votes are based on union membership, and most large unions back Sweeney. The winner of that election will serve a full two-year term and, if tradition is resumed, the new president will serve for many years. The last serious contest for the federation presidency was 101 years ago.

Sweeney and his supporters say Donahue has been too much a part of Kirkland's administration to provide the new leadership they say is so urgently needed. Sweeney's prediction of his victory could be wrong, but whoever wins, he must set about revitalizing the labor movement, providing what labor has most spectacularly lacked--strong, vocal leadership that can press an coherent liberal agenda. Neither candidate has sharply attacked the other, but in a recent conversation, Donahue indirectly criticized both Sweeney and also, for the first time, the uncharismatic Kirkland--who is seen as a handicap to Donahue.

A native New Yorker and graduate of Fordham Law School, Donahue is married to Rachelle Horowitz. They have two children.

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Question: Some of your supporters have denounced your opponent, John Sweeney, by saying he is splitting the ranks of unions when they desperately need unity in their battles with corporations and their enemies in Congress. Yet aren't you doing the same thing by entering the race after the incumbent, Lane Kirkland, decided to drop out of the contest and back you to challenge Sweeney?

Answer: Until a few weeks ago, I was supported for the AFL-CIO presidency by John Sweeney and all of his present backers. I am running for the presidency because working men and women are threatened by an economic order which puts profits above people and by a political order which threatens to strip away anything that helps hard-working families whose real income is going down as profits rise. I know the men and women of the labor movement because I've been privileged to join them in more organizing drives, contract fights and political battles than anyone. I know what needs to be done to harness their talents and energy to forge the kind of unified, creative labor movement that can successfully stand up for working families. I believe that by virtue of my experience and abilities, I am the best qualified person to make the kind of changes that are needed to make the AFL-CIO into the leader of the fight for working families. I am persuaded that, over time, I can unify the labor movement behind those changes.

Q: \o7 Sweeney says the federation of unions should put a third of its budget in organizing new members. Do you agree?

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