Labor in revolution AFL-CIO's new leader: John Sweeney's challenge is to keep unions relevant.

October 26, 1995

THE COUP D'ETAT in the AFL-CIO, as confirmed yesterday with the election of insurgent John Sweeney as president, reflects an economic revolution that is engulfing the labor movement. Manufacturing was king in the 1950s when George Meany combined the trade and industrial unions into one mighty entity. But today job growth is in the service sector; more and more workers are accepting lower or stagnant wages and temporary, no-benefits employment.

For the AFL-CIO this has meant declining membership, diminished political clout and 16 years of flagging leadership under Lane Kirkland, who was forced out as president last June in the first stage of the Sweeney revolt. It took the first contested election in the organization's history to bring to power a man who has made his mark through in-your-face advocacy and vigorous recruiting of low-wage workers.

Mr. Sweeney's "Jobs for Janitors" movement, characterized by traffic roadblocks and mass protest against non-union office building management, has helped his Service Employees International Union to double in size over the past decade. Government employees, with their strong representation of women and minorities, are also being organized in big numbers that are radically changing the white blue-collar orientation of organized labor.

In his push to power, the 61-year-old Sweeney dared to warn that the very "relevance" of the union movement was at stake if the Kirkland hierarchy prevailed. As other labor leaders rallied to his cause, as he called for "change that is bold and sweeping," he defeated Thomas Donahue, 69, Mr. Kirkland's chosen successor.

Mr. Sweeney's task is now to prove that he can maintain labor's "relevance" against developments that are strengthening the hand of management. Small new entrepreneurial firms, the bedrock of U.S. job growth, are largely non-union, nimble and averse to strict job-security protections in a fast-changing market. Competition from foreign labor is leading to the transfer of jobs overseas if present employees do not accept give-backs. Workers look more to government than to unions to protect benefits -- the 40-hour week, job safety, health benefits, paid vacations, pensions -- that came out of the labor movement. The Republican majority in Congress is overtly anti-union.

Americans can expect tougher rhetoric, more aggressive demands, greater political activism, even civil disobedience from the Sweeney-led AFL-CIO. But whether this will lead to a genuine labor revival, whether it will contribute to higher living standards, whether employers and politicians will even pay attention -- in short, whether labor unions will be relevant in future years -- these are challenges as large as any that have ever faced the union movement.

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