US unions seek leader who will turn the tide of decline a leader and saviour leader and saviour

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Washington - The AFL-CIO, flagship body of organised labour in the United States, yesterday began one of the most important conventions in its history, writes Rupert Cornwell. It will see its first-ever contested leadership election and - it devoutly hopes - the beginning of a revival in the fortunes of the battered union movement.

As the backstage deal-making continued last night, the challenger, John Sweeney, still seemed to have the edge in his attempt to unseat the incumbent, Thomas Donaghue, in tomorrow's ballot for the presidency, but not by the comfortable margin that once seemed assured.

By the latest reckoning, Mr Sweeney, head of the Service Employees International Union, has the support of 55 per cent of the 1,020 delegates to the New York gathering, representing 78 unions. But Mr Donaghue had not given up, and his lieutenants were trying to persuade five small construction unions to change sides.

Winning the top AFL-CIO job will be the easy part for Mr Sweeney. Facing him thereafter is the perhaps impossible task of reversing a historic decline in the power of organised labour. Since its heyday in the 1950s, union membership here has dropped from 30 per cent of the work force to 15 per cent; in the private sector the figure is 11 per cent, and if nothing is done, some labour economists predict, by the turn of the century the proportion may have dropped to 7 per cent - more or less where it was in 1900.

Part of the trouble lies with Mr Donaghue's patron and predecessor, Lane Kirkland, a remote figure far happier playing the international statesman of labour than mingling with the troops on the shop-floor. President since 1979, he was forced to resign last summer before he could seek a ninth consecutive two-year term, but not before hand-picking his deputy, Mr Donaghue, 67, as interim president until the convention.

Both candidates promise to beef up local union organisations, and to focus on the service industries, where the unions are weak and low-paying jobs especially common. Both say they want the unions to have a higher public profile.

But there is no guarantee this strategy will succeed. Heavy industry is in decline, and today's fastest expanding sectors, like electronics and communications, are less susceptible to organised labour.