Americans rebel over state of the unions

The leader of America's largest union organisation is on the verge of being toppled by an unprecedented membership revolt. Some say the uprising will revitalise the decaying US labour movement, but many people are warning that it will prove another step on the road to the organisation's demise.

For almost 16 years Lane Kirkland has presided over the AFL-CIO without serious challenge. But if he does not bow to the seemingly inevitable, the previously unthinkable will take place in New York this October: a contested leadership election, in which a doomed incumbent is denied even the traditional right to pick his own successor.

In the last few days another five AFL-CIO member unions have defected to the rebel faction, led by John Sweeney of the 1.1 million-strong Service Employees International Union. Four more, it is claimed, are poised to join them, thus lining up almost 60 per cent of the organisation's 13 million members against Mr Kirkland.

In an extraordinarily blunt speech this week, Mr Sweeney set out his case for radical change which he says the 73-year-old Mr Kirkland is unable to deliver. Not only was the US labour movement "irrelevant to the vast majority of unorganised workers in our country", it was also probably "irrelevant to many current union members''.

For this state of affairs, with which few neutral observers would quarrel, Mr Kirkland is held largely responsible. A cerebral figure, hardly visible in the public arena and whose un-workerlike tastes include fine wines, poetry and sculpture, he is accused of having lost touch with the rank and file.

He is charged with allowing the US labour movement - which has had just four leaders in its 114-year history - of continuing to operate as a self- perpetuating bureaucracy, and of letting slip the hard-won gains of the past half century.

From its peak in the late Forties, the percentage of American workers who belong to unions has shrivelled to 15 per cent today. The movement's political clout has faded in equal measure - as shown by its failure to persuade a Democratic administration it had helped elect to drop the hated North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) with Mexico. And if could not advance its cause when the Democrats controlled both the White House and Capitol Hill, its chances with a Republican Congress are next to non- existent.

All this, say Mr Kirkland's opponents, when the labour movement should be gaining fresh impetus from the falling living standards and job insecurity felt by so many Americans. But the AFL-CIO has not adjusted to change, neither to the growing fragmentation of high-tech industry, nor the increasing numbers of women and minorities in the workforce.

When organised labour captures the headlines today, it is usually at moments of painful defeat: for instance the recent decision of the United Rubber Workers to call off a long strike against the Bridgestone-Firestone tyre company. Its main result was to lose thousands of previously union jobs to replacement workers, probably for ever. Once one of the best organised and most influential US unions, the UAR is now to merge with the United Steelworkers.

Indeed a 1994 study commissioned by the AFL-CIO itself found little public hostility to unions; merely "disappointment, indifference and apathy".

The Sweeney forces have three broad goals: to shift resources into organising at local and plant level, to pay more attention to women and minorities - if needs be at the expense of the traditional blue collar white membership - and to limit support to Democratic candidates and politicians who explicitly supported union policies.

With Mr Kirkland's prospects of a ninth two-year term dwindling, pressure is growing for a compromise to avoid a permanently damaging split. If he can be persuaded to step down gracefully (perhaps with the promise of an ambassadorship from President Bill Clinton), Mr Sweeney hopes that Thomas Donahue, the AFL-CIO treasurer who is popular with both insurgents and Kirkland supporters, will agree to stand. Hitherto Mr Donahue has said he will retire rather than challenge his old friend Mr Kirkland.

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