US battle for union chief's post

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Bowing to the inevitable, the ALF-CIO president, Lane Kirkland, resigned this week, all but ensuring for the battered American labour movement its first contested leadership election this century.

The decision of the 73-year-old Mr Kirkland not to seek a ninth two-year term when leadership elections are held this October sets up a conflict between his deputy, Tom Donahue, and a powerful group of dissident unions which for now at least seem to have the upper hand. At stake is the whole future of the 13-million member AFL-CIO, currently facing difficulties unmatched since the 1930s.

Yesterday President Bill Clinton praised Mr Kirkland for "ideas and accomplishments that will benefit working families for generations". In fact, his 16 years in charge have witnessed a drastic decline in the membership, political influence and indeed relevance of organised labour to American life.

Its plight is similar to that of counterparts in Britain and other European countries, reflecting the withering of the rust-belt industries that were once its citadel, and a failure to make inroads in the fast growing and fragmented hi-tech sector which is replacing them. Compounding the difficulties has been the decline in the fortunes of labour's traditional ally and patron, the Democratic party, culminating in last autumn's Republican takeover of Congress.

But Mr Kirkland has come under personal criticism, too, for an excessive fondness for the corridors of power in Washington and a lack of interest in grassroots organisation. One result, say his foes, has been a collapse in union membership to barely 15 per cent of the workforce, the lowest proportion since the late 1930s.

His departure means that his loyal ally Mr Donahue will take over on an interim basis. But his prospective challenger, John Sweeney, head of the Service Employees International Union, already seems to have the votes to win, including the big bloc votes of the United Autoworkers, the Teamsters, and the steel and mining unions.

Mr Sweeney, on record as saying the unions are "irrelevant to the vast majority of organised workers", promises to correct that by stepping up organisation, especially in hi-tech and service industries, with a focus on black, Hispanic and above all women voters, who already represent 39 per cent of membership.

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