Sweeney dons a tattered mantle Unionism sags: The new chief of the AFL-CIO takes office at a time when unions are smaller and weaker than they have been in decades.

Sun Journal

November 03, 1995|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,SUN STAFF

So John Sweeney won. He led insurgents within the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, to victory last month over the old guard and became the leader of the union movement.

But Mr. Sweeney leads a shrinking kingdom.

Unlike some of his predecessors -- labor chiefs such as John L. Lewis and George Meany, who could shut down entire industries and help elect presidents -- Mr. Sweeney has to battle to make organized labor matter in the workplace.

Unions' recent history will not provide him much encouragement. In the past 40 years, the proportion of union members has dropped to 15 percent of the work force, from 35 percent. Employers are having greater success in replacing striking workers, thereby neutralizing the strike weapons. In national politics, union endorsements now are sometimes not advantages but liabilities.

"It's hard to imagine how it could have gotten this bad," says Jack Metzgar, a labor historian at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

Now, Mr. Sweeney pledges to turn this around. He promises that unions will again be a force for positive change. He says he will scrap the AFL-CIO's focus on helping only its 13 million members and reach out to everyone in the workplace.

It is another turn in a historical cycle that began 134 years ago, when the founders of the first national labor federation met in Baltimore. They vowed to promote ideals ranging from racial integration to an eight-hour workday. Ever since, the labor movement has swung between idealism and pragmatism.

But it isn't clear whether Mr. Sweeney is the person who can lead a labor revival. Or if anyone can. Even those hoping hardest for a labor renaissance are sometimes doubtful.

Take Ella Walker, for example.

For the past month, Ms. Walker has put in her regular eight-hour shift cutting vegetables in the kitchen of Baltimore's Omni Inner Harbor hotel and then picketed outside the lobby for another two hours each evening.

She and other unionized workers are protesting the hotel's proposal to take more out of their wages to pay for health care. They picket on their off hours because they could lose their jobs if they strike.

She fears that the picketing will fail to sway management. A union member for 21 years, she soldiers on because she believes in the cause. But she fears her that her life, and the lives of other working people, are "going to get worse."

The hotel's management shares her skepticism about what organized labor will be able to do.

Jay Krupin, labor attorney for the hotel, said the picketing is only an annoyance. "We haven't been affected at all," he says. "They don't have much power" since the company may replace anyone who walks off the job. "The strike tool has been taken away."

The conservative political tide, says Mr. Krupin, may mean that "unions are going to have less clout."

Unions have been losing ground for three main reasons, economists say.

In many long-unionized factories, automation and foreign competition have forced layoffs. In the textile industry, for example, the number of workers has fallen during the past 30 years to 900,000 from 1.4 million, as computerized cutting machines and low-paid sewers overseas churned out everything from socks to suits.

Second, employers have mounted increasingly effective opposition, with some companies hiring outside consultants to battle union organization drives. While costly, the consultants are effective; studies show them winning three out of every four campaigns.

Plus, organized labor has suffered many self-inflicted wounds.

From part of the labor movement's endorsement of Wendell Wilkie against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, to the air traffic controllers union's endorsement of Ronald Reagan in 1980, unions and their members have sometimes backed anti-union candidates.

Ed Poarch, who inspects construction sites for Baltimore area construction unions, says he often sees union members' pickup trucks displaying "Ellen Sauerbrey for Governor" bumper stickers, accompanied by stickers opposing gun control.

Ms. Sauerbrey campaigned against gun control -- and against laws that require state contractors to pay union wages.

"I think, 'You idiot. If Ellen had won, you wouldn't get this pay,' " Mr. Poarch says. "These guys are not voting their pocketbook issues."

And union leaders themselves have hurt labor's cause, sometimes through corruption.

The federal government, for example, has placed observers in the headquarters of the Laborers' International Union -- representing unskilled workers such as ditch diggers and chicken plant employees -- because of alleged mob influence. The headquarters staff of the Teamsters union last month took over a Baltimore local, charging that its president had pocketed union money.

Unions have laid themselves open to criticism by also fighting democratic reforms. In the election that chose Mr. Sweeney as the new AFL-CIO president, only union leaders -- rather than all union members -- were eligible to vote.

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