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.

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
Researchers have said it could take only two questions to identify a problem with alcohol
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'
tvCilla review: A poignant ending to mini-series
News
i100
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
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

LSA (afterschool club) vacancy in Newport

£40 per day + Travel Scheme : Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job: Our client ...

Trust Accountant - Kent

NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education are curre...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: You must:- Speak English as a first lang...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style