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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 3 Welsh Teacher vacancy in Penarth

£110 - £120 per day + Travel Scheme and Free training: Randstad Education Card...

Senior Developer - HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, VBA, SQL

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are working with one o...

Male Behaviour Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

£55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

BA/PM,EMIR/Dodd-Frank,London,£450-650P/D

£450 - £650 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz