US unions elect leader promising a new dawn

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The first contested election in the AFl-CI0's 40-year history was won yesterday by insurgent union leader, John Sweeney, promising to revitalise the American labour movement. In a vote at the federation's New York convention, Mr Sweeney easily defeated the incumbent President, Thomas Donahue.

With 1,020 delegates voting for members from 78 unions, Mr Sweeney captured the equivalent of 7.3 million out of 13 million votes. A senior figure in the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations) hierarchy, Mr Sweeney is no outsider, but he had urged delegates in an acrimonious pre-election debate with his rival to "say no to the status quo".

His answer to the problems of American unions, which have seen their membership shrink to 15 per cent of the work force and appear at risk of being sidelined as a political force, is to adopt the kind of confrontational tactics seldom seen in the US since the 1960s.

Mr Sweeney pushed through a resolution calling for the training of 1,000 organisers a year, five times the existing number, and promised to focus a recruiting drive on workers in hi-tech industries, on ethnic minorities and on women.

He comes to the job with a record that suggests his promises are more than rhetoric. As head of the 1-million member Service Employees International Union, he achieved what was traditionally considered impossible - recruiting and organising workers in the service industries.

Under his leadership, the SEIU embraced civil disobedience. In September his members blocked Washington's busy Roosevelt Bridge in the middle of the morning rush hour to support efforts to organise janitors who cleaned office buildings in the city.

Linda Chavez-Thompson, an ideological soul-mate and expected to become his deputy, was recently arrested at a demonstration on behalf of hotel workers in San Francisco. "I like to get arrested," she said.

The convention yesterday moved to mend bitter divisions that have marked Mr Sweeney's rise to power since he orchestrated the ousting last June of the 73-year-old Lane Kirkland. During more than 16 years in power Mr Kirkland presided over a decline in union membership to 13 million, its lowest in three decades.

With critics claiming Mr Kirkland was so inactive few members even knew his name, Mr Sweeney led an insurgent group of big unions, including car workers and the Teamsters, to force him to resign. It set the stage for the first leadership contest since the AFL-CIO came together 40 years ago.

Mr Sweeney's aggressive tactics so angered Doug Dority, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, that he and other leaders threatened to walk out of the federation. A split was apparently averted when the two sides agreed to expand its executive council to 51 seats from 35.

But a growing number of union leaders are talking of a reprise of 1960s civil rights protests, in a nostalgia for the days of union muscle. "We're going to take the ports," John Morris, a Philadelphia Teamsters leader, told the New York Times. "That's the whole Philadelphia waterfront."