This Year, Organized Labor Girds for Solidarity


August 28, 1991|By MICHAEL BURNS | MICHAEL BURNS,Michael Burns covers labor issues for The Sun.

Organized labor usually gets its annual physical this time every year. Around Labor Day, its membership numbers are carefully weighed, its ability to win strikes and bargain favorable contracts tested, the wins and losses in the Congress and the Courts checked out.

The evaluation typically concludes with the diagnosis that labor is in decline, but adds that things will get better for the unions as more workers recognize their plight.

But it hasn't turned out that way: labor unions' share of the work force, fewer than one in six workers, continues to dwindle even in the face of a persistent recession.

The might of organized labor in the Congress has also eroded, despite a large number of Democrats that won with union backing, while the White House remains an impregnable Republican bastion. So instead of the usual Labor Day parades and picnics across the country, this year the unions are mobilizing in Washington to force attention from a complacent government.

The plan is for hundreds of thousands of union members and their allies to converge Saturday in the capital to flex their political muscle, in a massive effort to regroup the traditional bases of Democratic Party power and to press for a renewed liberal agenda.

Solidarity Day '91 is touted as Washington's largest-ever political demonstration, an attempt to revive the weakened coalition of labor, minorities, environmentalists, senior citizens and other liberal partners.

The rally's message of discontent will be focused on the TC Democratic-controlled Congress, and on the national party's lack direction. ''The march is part of the fight to give the Democratic Party its proper bearings,'' declares Howard D. Samuel of the national AFL-CIO.

Solidarity Day aims to impress legislators with a broad consensus for labor issues and other liberal concerns that include national health care, civil rights, a ban on replacement of strikers and the right of public sector workers to organize for collective bargaining.

Since the first Solidarity Day in 1981, labor has failed to achieve most of its goals in the Congress, as Democratic conservatives side with Republicans and even liberal-labeled Democrats switch sides on key votes. Labor bills that have passed have failed to muster veto-proof majorities.

The AFL-CIO sustained an embarrassing defeat this year when longtime Democratic allies supported the president's call for ''fast track'' authority to negotiate a free trade agreement with Mexico, an accord that labor argues will cost the United States millions of jobs.

Lane Kirkland, head of the 15-million-member AFL-CIO, warned that ''the vagueness of the Democratic message'' represented by that vote is a reason why the party fails to win the presidency.

The fuzziness of traditional party lines has encouraged some union officials to call for a national Labor Party, which would represent the goals of working people. The idea is not endorsed by the AFL-CIO and has scant chance of becoming reality. But the new movement expresses the dissatisfaction with both parties and the feeling that labor should develop its own liberal agenda and extract pledges of support from the candidates it backs.

After a marriage of more than a half-century, however, organized labor and the Democratic Party are not ready for divorce. But they could stand some marriage counseling, confronting their differences rather than grumbling through an uncomfortable relationship.

In an effort to rekindle the romance, pressures are building in the labor movement to line up early behind a presidential candidate committed to its progressive goals. Populist Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa or progressive New York Gov. Mario Cuomo now seem to be contenders for that endorsement.

The AFL-CIO made a pre-primary endorsement only once before, backing Walter Mondale in 1984. That won him the nomination, but labeled him as labor's captive, and his trouncing by Ronald Reagan was shared by the labor movement for the rest of the decade. Given George Bush's sustained popularity despite a persistent recession, that course of history could well be repeated to the detriment of both Democratic Party and organized labor. Congressional Democrats are rightly worried they could be pulled down in 1992 by that scenario.

Labor's real political success stories have been at the local and state levels and in fostering free trade unions abroad, such as those in Poland, Chile and South Africa. Despite all the talk about the decline of labor unions -- stagnant membership, loss of high-paying blue collar jobs, decades of presidential antipathy -- they have been effective in organizing essential manpower to turn out voters in targeted campaigns. They don't always have as much money as other interest groups, but they have often made their donations count.

At the national level, the labor federation has learned that politicians it helped elect are not automatic supporters of its causes. The issues and voting pressures are more complex. The Solidarity Day '91 organizers hope to resimplify the equation, to serve notice that a strong, vocal constituency wants clear political commitments for its causes. Legislators will ignore that demand, labor warns, at their own peril in the next election.

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