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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
i100(More than you think)
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey


Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit