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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific