Can A New Leader Bring Labor Back To Life?

Most employers don't worry too much about unions these days. But it could be a mistake to write off organized labor as dead and buried. After more than a decade of complacency, disgruntled union chiefs on June 12 finally forced AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland to announce his retirement and make way for a more vigorous leader. The two men vying for his job, Thomas R. Donahue, the Federation's No.2, and John J. Sweeney, head of the fast-growing service-employees' union, have similar plans for reviving labor. They intend to dramatically increase efforts to seek new members. And they hope to use the top post as a pulpit to make unions more visible.

TREADING WATER. Whoever wins, his actions could help stop the shrinkage of unions--to 15.5% of the workforce from 22% 15 years ago. Already, more than a dozen unions, such as the clothing workers' and Sweeney's union, have major commitments to membership drives. Their success shows that workers will join if unions put enough energy into recruitment. "Who the president of the AFL-CIO is--and his commitment of resources and vision--makes a big difference in unions' ability to win new members," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell University labor expert.

Organizing is an intimidating task. Employers illegally fire union supporters in a third of all elections held to form new unions, studies at the University of Chicago show. And downsizings mean that labor must find more new adherents just to avoid shrinking. In 1994, for instance, unions grew by 150,000 members, the second year of growth after 14 years of decline. But their share of the workforce slid slightly anyway. Small wonder unions mount half the elections in private industry than they did in the 1970s (chart).

Still, some leaders demonstrate that labor doesn't have to accept the status quo. The best performer is Sweeney's union, which has nearly doubled in size since 1980, to 1.1 million. Half of that growth came from employee affiliations, usually of public-sector workers, whose employers resist less fiercely than private ones do. But the other half consisted of low-wage, often minority and immigrant workers, such as janitors and clerical and health-care employees--all fast-growing groups in the workforce.

How has the union done it? For starters, Sweeney sinks a third of his $53 million annual budget into membership drives, vs. 2% to 4% at most unions. He also has resurrected 1930s-style campaigns that rely heavily on rank-and-filers and turn membership drives into community issues involving church and nonprofit groups. The largest effort, called Justice for Janitors, has embarrassed large real estate owners into lifting pay for office janitors even though most of them work for subcontractors.

Justice for Janitors has signed up 35,000 members in more than 20 cities since 1985. In Washington, the union has held public rallies to protest a $32 million tax break the city gave to large developers, prompting some to agree to union contracts. "The AFL-CIO needs to take the lead in developing new ideas, such as organizing without elections or organizing industries instead of isolated workplaces," says Sweeney.

SOUTHERN BELLS. Other unions have begun to follow suit. The 140,000-member textile-workers union has doubled its spending on organizing since 1990, to 20% of its budget. It racked up more than 6,000 new members in both 1993 and 1994, half of them among low-wage Southern manufacturing workers. New leaders at the historically mob-ridden laborers' union are winning drives at Southern chicken-processing plants.

And the Teamsters' reformer president, Ronald Carey, put an extra $25 million into organizing, even though he inherited a nearly bankrupt union. This year alone, his union has won 1,600 new members in 14 elections at Overnite Transportation Co. The Teamsters had never gained a member there in the 84 elections held since 1958.

Union membership drives depend heavily on rank-and-filers' sense of momentum and purpose. The Teamsters succeeded at Overnite, for example, only after drivers for other companies got involved. Such participation has been rare in recent years. And one person at the top of 13 million unionists won't single-handedly inspire the troops. But if either Donahue or Sweeney builds on recent successes, he could have a dramatic impact on labor's strength and influence into the next millennium.

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