Leadership struggle ensues as Kirkland decides to retire as head of AFL-CIO

June 11, 1995|By New York Times News Service

A battle for the leadership of the AFL-CIO has surfaced in the wake of Lane Kirkland's decision last week not to seek re-election as president of the federation.

The two men maneuvering to succeed Mr. Kirkland are promising to revitalize the labor federation, though such pledges may be difficult to fulfill in an age of declining public support for unions.

The contenders are Thomas R. Donahue, who has been Mr. Kirkland's second-in-command for 16 years, and John J. Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union, which includes janitors, window washers and other maintenance workers and building service employees.

Mr. Donahue and Mr. Sweeney are expected to announce their rival candidacies early this week. They were freed to do so when Mr. Kirkland, bowing to pressure from within the federation, gave up his plans to seek a ninth two-year term as president.

The leadership struggle is in part a reaction to Republican gains in last year's congressional elections.

Angry that the AFL-CIO had been so unsuccessful in lobbying a Democratic administration and Congress -- and alarmed by the prospect of a Republican-led Congress -- the leaders of a dozen major unions within the federation began in February to urge the ailing Mr. Kirkland to retire at the end of his current term at the end of this year.

That would permit the election, they said, of a more charismatic, aggressive president. These union leaders initially endorsed Mr. Donahue.

But Mr. Kirkland, who is 73, refused to retire. And Mr. Donahue, 66, said he would not run against his boss, whom he has served as secretary-treasurer since Mr. Kirkland became president in 1979. Mr. Donahue even announced in the spring that he would retire rather than oppose Mr. Kirkland.

When Mr. Kirkland began early last week to tell leaders of the 81 unions in the AFL-CIO that he would not run after all, Mr. Donahue started to canvass them for support. Many of them rebuffed him.

Mr. Donahue's appeal for support, which includes the reminder that up to a few weeks ago Mr. Sweeney himself supported his candidacy, does not play well in the Sweeney camp, which contends, among other things, that Mr. Donahue is too identified with Mr. Kirkland's lackluster policies to revitalize the labor movement.

As of last week, Mr. Sweeney's loyalists appeared to control enough of the votes among the labor organization's 13.3 million workers to ensure Mr. Sweeney's election at the federation's annual meeting in New York in October.

But with the election still months away, Mr. Donahue shows no signs of yielding.

Mr. Donahue and Mr. Sweeney, who is 61, are part of the aging white male hierarchy that leads and dominates the union movement in America and has never before in the 40-year history the AFL-CIO fielded two competing candidates for president. "The campaign debate itself is revitalizing the federation," one union president said.

White male union membership is declining as a percentage of total membership, while women, African-Americans and Hispanic workers represent a rising share of the total.

In recognition, Mr. Donahue and Mr. Sweeney are the first federation leaders to promise to have a member of a minority as a running mate.

The Sweeney camp, which has scheduled a news conference in Washington for Tuesday, is expected to announce then that Linda Chavez-Thompson, who is Hispanic, will be his running mate as secretary-treasurer, union officials said.

Richard L. Trumka, 45, president of the United Mine Workers, is also to be on the ticket, in a newly created post of executive vice president -- if the AFL-CIO's executive council agrees to create such a post.

Mr. Trumka, who is white, is one of the nation's youngest union presidents.

Mr. Donahue, who has not announced any potential running mates, has argued that the AFL-CIO under Mr. Kirkland brought five minority members onto the federation's 33-member executive council and greatly expanded the hiring of members of minorities for the organization's staff.

Mr. Donahue says he will continue this push for diversity.

Beyond minority representation in the leadership, there are two other burning issues.

One is how to mobilize the grass-roots membership in support of the legislation and the candidates favored by the AFL-CIO.

The other is how to make the AFL-CIO more effective in helping its members organize nonunion workers at a time when U.S. labor law makes organizing difficult and workers often fear losing their jobs if they antagonize management.

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