Labor

A colossus takes his leave

Ian Urquhart November 19 1979
Labor

A colossus takes his leave

Ian Urquhart November 19 1979

A colossus takes his leave

Labor

Ian Urquhart

Just one block from the White House on 16th Street, Washington’s poshest downtown thoroughfare, sits a marble-faced office building. There are always two or three limousines parked in the curved driveway. In the lobby is a mother-of-pearl replica of a Moslem mosque in Jerusalem, a gift from Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan. The atmosphere is that of a major corporation or business association. But it is the headquarters of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the voice of 13.7 million unionized workers in the United States.

The surroundings fit because the AFLCIO, unlike its counterpart in Canada, the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC), is part of the establishment in the U.S. The American federation carries clout the CLC can only dream of; it is wooed by presidents and congressmen, princes and ambassadors.

This week and next, the AFL-CIO convenes in Washington to select a successor to George Meany, the only president the federation has known since its formation 24 years ago when the craft unions of the AFL merged with the industrial unions of the CIO. There will be none of the noisy dissent that characterizes CLC conventions. Instead, the AFL-CIO delegates will behave more like shareholders at the annual meeting of a large corporation and rubber-stamp the predetermined executive. No one ever challenged Meany’s leadership at an AFL-CIO convention. Nor is anyone likely to challenge his handpicked successor, Lane Kirkland, who has served as Meany’s deputy for the past two decades.

Nevertheless, beneath the veneer of its orchestrated convention, the AFL-CIO is a troubled federation today. As the white-collar and service sectors of the economy continue to grow and economic power in the country shifts to the antiunion “sun belt,” the unions’ share of the work force keeps on shrinking. Last year, fewer than one in five American workers (19.7 per cent) belonged to unions, down from 25.5 per cent in 1953. (In Canada, 31.3 per cent of the work force is unionized.) Many unions, especially those in the railway and newspaper industries, are in trouble and seeking mergers to stay afloat. Others have found their economic clout is diminishing and have been forced to ac-

cept contracts with wage increases well below the inflation rate. So, too, is the political power of the AFL-CIO waning as its base shrinks. Last year, in spite of prodigious lobbying efforts, the federation failed to get a bill through Congress that would have made it easier for unions to organize new locals. The AFLCIO also lost its fight to maintain price controls on crude oil and natural gas and was unable to interest Congress in a national health insurance bill. Concedes AFL-CIO spokesman Al Zack: “This has

not been a good Congress for us.” Some mavericks in the federation blame the situation, in part, on Meany, the cigar-chomping New York plumber who has stood astride the American movement like a colossus for a quartercentury. A fanatical anti-Communist, Meany was an ardent hawk regarding the Vietnam War and refused to back George McGovern, a dove, for the first and only time the AFL-CIO did not back the Democratic nominee for the White House. On domestic issues, he was equally conservative, adopting the “business unionism” aproach of Sam Gompers, the founder of the AFL. Latterly, at 85 and in failing health, Meany seemed increasingly out-of-touch with the rank-and-file members of his

unions. Says William Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists and a leading voice of the AFL-CIO’s left wing: “Our problem today is one of organizing young workers, and I don’t think there is any way that aging leadership can relate to the young workers who are in the industrial complex and in the offices of America today.”

Whether the accession of Kirkland will make any difference remains to be seen. In personality, Kirkland, 57, seems almost the opposite of Meany. A soft-spoken intellectual with a low pro-

file, Kirkland professes no interest in staying at the top of the AFL-CIO for as long as his predecessor. He would rather retire and study archeology. “But intellectually and philosophically, Kirkland and Meany march to the same drum,” says Jerry Wurf, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “Substantively, there is not much difference.”

But, if only because he does not possess Meany’s force of personality, Kirkland is likely to tolerate more dissent inside the AFL-CIO, say union leaders.

He may also woo back into the federation two of the country’s biggest and most powerful unions, the Teamsters, whom Meany kicked out 22 years ago, and the United Auto Workers, who left on their own accord.

The first big test of Kirkland’s leadership will come in the AFL-CIO’s choice of a presidential candidate. Both incumbent Jimmy Carter and challenger Ted Kennedy are working hard to win labor support. The presidential box at Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is often filled these days with union leaders, there courtesy of Carter. Invitations to dinner or lunch at the White House are also being liberally extended to union leaders. But Kennedy seems to have the support of most of the rank-and-file members of unions. To date, Kirkland has stayed scrupulously neutral, but pressure will build during the primaries for him to make a choice. He is thought to lean toward Carter, a fellow southerner (Kirkland is from South Carolina), but he might have difficulty taking the AFL-CIO with him if he moves in that direction.

The tougher test will come later, however, as the labor movement tries to hold on to what it has already won and to extend its base into the “sun belt” and the white-collar industries. Kirkland himself is bullish on the prospects. Says he: “It’s become somewhat fashionable to write about the position of the trade-union movement in our society in terms of gloom and doom. It has become almost... a journalistic cliché. I don’t think it’s justified ... I think we are at a period when we have got a solid base and there’s going to be a very substantial movement forward of the trade-union movement. I’m confident of it.” If he’s wrong, the AFL-CIO will look a lot less like a shareholders’ meeting and a lot more like the CLC, the next time it convenes in 1981.