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PERSPECTIVE ON LABOR : Empowerment Has Its Problems : The sudden prominence of the service workers' union belies the trouble the old guard has with its base of minorities and women.

October 29, 1995|FRANK DEL OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

One symbol that supporters of John Sweeney used in their campaign to help him win the presidency of the AFL-CIO last week was a poster depicting a rising sun. It was supposed to symbolize the promise that Sweeney's election would herald a new dawn for organized labor in this country.

Cynics have since pointed out that the same poster could someday be seen as the final flare of a setting sun if Sweeney, who unseated Thomas Donahue in the first contested election in the AFL-CIO's 40-year history, fails to reverse the steep decline in union membership and influence. One third of the U.S. work force was unionized in the 1950s, compared to an estimated 11% today. And some labor experts predict that by the year 2000, the percentage of unionized workers could be back where it was in 1900, roughly 7%.

Painfully aware of such statistics, delegates to the AFL-CIO convention in New York cast 56% of their votes for Sweeney over Donahue, the interim president who had been the designated successor to Lane Kirkland, who headed the labor federation for the past 16 years. They did so not just because Sweeney promised to reverse labor's decline, but because he came from a union with a record that would seem to back up the promise.

Sweeney, 61, was president of the Service Employees International Union, one of the few to buck the trend of shrinking membership. SEIU has 1.1 million members, almost double its size 10 years ago. That growth came largely from organizing workers that most other unions either tended to ignore or were even hostile to: minorities, immigrants and women.

Some SEIU organizing campaigns use the militant style of the 1930s. Perhaps the most noteworthy example was the controversial Justice for Janitors campaign here in Los Angeles in 1990. It unionized a mostly Latino immigrant work force after an organizing campaign that featured large street protests, one of which involved an ugly confrontation with Los Angeles police in Century City.

Not surprisingly, the Justice for Janitors campaign got a lot of attention and spawned similar SEIU campaigns in other cities. But the heady promise of those early days has faded. Last month, Sweeney stepped in and seized control of SEIU Local 399, whose 28,000 members include most of the workers unionized in the Justice for Janitors campaign.

Sweeney put Local 399 under trusteeship after several weeks of wrangling between the local's mostly Anglo leadership and a mostly Latino insurgent faction that had won control of the local's executive board in a June election. The insurgents campaigned on complaints that the local's leadership was doing a poor job servicing members and enforcing contracts.

In ordering Local 399 into trusteeship, Sweeney was quoted as saying the newly elected officials were not prepared to assume leadership and could do harm by giving employers an opportunity to break hard-won union contracts.

Sweeney's concern may have some validity. But if the Latinos and women who were unionized by the Justice for Janitors campaign are not yet ready to assume leadership, the question for the union is, when will they be?

Similar internal struggles took place in other Los Angeles-area union locals not long after they started successfully organizing Latino immigrants. In 1989, Latinos in Local 11 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union voted out their Anglo leadership and elected Maria Elena Durazo as president. She has since become one of Los Angeles' most visible labor leaders. Three years later, the hotel employees Local 681 in Orange County ousted the Anglo male leadership in favor of Angela Keefe, who speaks Spanish and connected easily with disaffected Latino union members.

Both of those campaigns were divisive and painful for the union locals. But in retrospect, they were part of the growth and change that is inevitable once formerly all-male, all-Anglo institutions open their doors to large numbers of minorities and women. After all, once you help raise the consciousness of workers for the first time, it is naive to assume that they will use their newfound skills only to criticize their employers. Why should SEIU's experience--or that of any other union that sets out to organize long-neglected workers--be any different?

Until SEIU resolves the crisis in Local 399 with some sensitivity for the members its organizers helped politicize, there can be no answer to the question of whether the sun is rising or setting on organized labor.

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