THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL-BULLETIN
Monday September 4, 1995
By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau
American unions are showing a little life
this Labor Day: For the first time in a century there is an open
challenge under way for the leadership of the AFL-CIO, the labor
federation that represents most American union members.
All the same, the insurgents' leader, John
Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union,
has put this harsh view at the center of his campaign for the
federation presidency: "In the eyes of many workers, the
American labor movement is becoming irrelevant."
After forcing the incumbent president, Lane
Kirkland, from office this summer, the two factions of challengers
have adopted many of the same themes:
*It's time for a change.
*It's time to organize workers more aggressively.
*It's time for labor's voice to be heard
clearly in national affairs.
At a roundtable discussion last Friday at
the National Press Club, panelists representing unions, manufacturing
and business journalism took a look at the future of organized
While holding up the AFL-CIO leadership struggle
as possible grounds for optimism, panelists at the conference
also alluded to the familiar history of organized labor's decline.
Unions represented more than a third of the
work force at their highwater mark in the early 1950s. The sometimes
bloody organizing victories of the Depression put labor in a position
to grow dramatically during the military-industrial boom of World
The postwar prosperity, too, brought good
times for labor. Burgeoning industries such as automobiles and
airlines, along with rising demand for consumer goods, triggered
a manufacturing expansion that more than offset the peacetime
Today, the nation's 16 million union members
constitute little more than 10 percent of the labor force. Of
that number, thanks to aggressive organizing in the public sector,
roughly half of union members today work for government at some
But union membership has plummeted in the
metal trades and other heavy manufacturing with the wholesale
loss of jobs to foreign competition and, more recently, the contraction
of the weapons business - best seen locally in the shrinking membership
of unions at Electric Boat's Groton, Conn., shipyard.
EB's non-union Quonset Point plant exemplifies
two other factors in organized labor's decline: the success of
corporations in recent decades in resisting unionization, along
with increasing reliance on ever-more sophisticated machinery,
such as the computer-guided tools that help shape the submarine
hull-ring sections at Quonset Point and stuff them with fixtures.
Frank Swoboda, the moderator of the session
and a labor reporter for the Washington Post, noted that automation
has also come to the service sector, "once seen as the panacea"
for unions seeking new labor pools from which to recruit members.
The new Republican majority in Congress,
moreover, may further erode organized labor by revising such labor
laws as the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires government contractors
to pay the locally prevailing wage - often the union wage.
So far in the 104th Congress, though, the
GOP has failed to focus much on labor's legislative canon, much
less enact wholesale changes in it.
One key to labor's future is to beef up organizing
drives - particularly among underrepresented low-wage workers
and among employees of foreign and multinational firms that have
set up shop in this country, argued Arthur A. Coia, the Providence-born
president of the Laborers International Union of North America
and one of the organizers of the challenge to Kirkland.
The 750,000-member Laborers, heavily oriented
toward workers at the bottom of the wage ladder, has some success
stories to make Coia's point. He told, for example, how several
hundred, mostly Spanish-speaking workers at a poultry processing
plant in North Carolina voted this summer to join his union.
Coia said that victory depended partly on
the international's willingness to invest in a legal struggle
against the efforts of plant management to block union organizers.
And he said it depended on worker outrage at a management that
charged employees for drinking water and required workers to get
permission to use the toilet.
But Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of
Columbia's delegate to Congress, said it takes money - the ability
to swing "a big olive branch," as she put it - to mount
such organizing drives and to make the kind of credible strike
threat at the bargaining table that yields good contracts.
Michelle Amber, an editor for the Washington-based
Daily Labor Report, said another hopeful trend is the rise in
cooperation between labor and management evidenced in contracts
that lock in such tools as worker membership on company boards
of directors, and systematic solicitation of workers' ideas on
Like both factions in the AFL-CIO campaign,
Friday's panelists all seemed to agree on labor's need for better
communication with rank-and-file workers and for better public
relations. "A lot of union members didn't even know that
Lane Kirkland was president of the AFL-CIO," Amber said.
Panelists also seemed to agree that unions
have a big potential role in the training of workers for the global
But as if to underline how much energy labor
spends these days on holding actions, the panelists put more time
and spirit into the old squabble about such topics as permanent
striker replacement and other longstanding legal issues than any
other topic Friday.
They also omitted any mention of the problem
of corruption in unions. The Laborers' Union has operated since
February under an agreement with the Justice Department that requires
it to take steps to purge corruption or face tougher government
The hotel and restaurant employees union
also entered into an agreement recently that lets a federal board
monitor it for possible organized crime
Contents copyright 1982 to 1995 by The Providence Journal Co