Commentary: Why Lane Kirkland Looks Like A Lame Duck

The whispers are back. Since the Republicans swept into power in Congress last November, there have been rumblings in the union halls and in the corridors of the AFL-CIO. At the federation's executive council meeting in mid-February, the question will come up again: Is it time for President Lane Kirkland to retire?

Such sniping has cropped up before during Kirkland's 15 years atop the federation--but never so publicly or widely. Unionists are deeply frustrated, and they should be. After a decade in which unions suffered a near-death experience, Kirkland acts as though little has changed.

NO FIREBRAND. True, the decline of unionism can't be ascribed to lackluster leadership. Heightened management antipathy, America's broad shift out of manufacturing, and the rise of the global economy have done more to reduce membership. And Kirkland, who declined to comment, didn't lose the November elections. But the federation president's strategy to combat those long-term forces hasn't worked. Kirkland waited 12 years for a Democratic President who could save unions, then watched as the Clinton Administration failed to deliver on labor's requests. Now that the GOP runs Congress, Kirkland seems to have no other plan for reviving the movement.

More than that, the crusty 72-year-old presents a condescending public image that reinforces the image of labor unions as out of touch with the workers. More intellectual than firebrand, he shuns TV interviews and speaks in endless Proustian sentences. Says Ron Carey, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the federation's largest union: "We need a labor movement that has some fire in it again, and that means a change at the top."

Carey and others complain that Kirkland has lost his relevance. A card-carrying cold warrior who has devoted much of his lengthy career to battling communism, Kirkland spends one-third of the AFL-CIO's $100 million annual budget on four foreign affairs institutes that support overseas labor unions. He seems less interested in the plight of American unions. "He spends an extraordinary amount of time dealing with Eastern Europe while we're going to hell in a handbasket," complains Robert E. Wages, president of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers International


Indeed, it's often difficult to tell what the federation's domestic strategy is. The labor movement split into two schools in the 1980s. One sought cooperation with management to help fend off global competition; the other attacked employers for demanding employee concessions. Kirkland advocates neither view and has no alternative. Instead, he resisted the cooperation way of thinking for a decade, then finally allowed AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Thomas R. Donahue to spearhead a committee that endorsed the concept last year.

Kirkland's biggest achievement in that time: bringing the auto workers, mine workers, and Teamsters back into the AFL-CIO. This strengthened the federation but didn't lift overall union membership. Meanwhile, opportunities have gone unexploited. Many workers are anxious about falling wages and lost jobs, yet the loudest voice on the subject is a government official, Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich. What's more, numerous surveys indicate that about 40% of all workers would like to join a union, far more than the 16% that actually belong (chart). Kirkland has done little to make Americans aware of the dramatic increase in illegal firings of union supporters that dampen organizing drives.

NEW LEADER? Some unionists think Kirkland should retire when his term ends in October and let Donahue take over the ship. Even some stalwart supporters now seem open to change. "I'm 100% behind Lane until there's another candidate, and then I'll take a look at all the candidates," says Albert Shanker, a friend and longtime supporter of Kirkland's who heads the American Federation of Teachers.

It's not clear yet whether the federation's 86 unions will screw up the courage to act on their complaints. If they do, Donahue likely would serve as president for one or two two-year terms. A new secretary-treasurer, poised to take charge for the longer term, might be a younger leader such as United Mine Workers President Richard L. Trumka. One of labor's best stump speakers and just 45 years old, Trumka could help rejuvenate labor's image. No one will singlehandedly restore the labor movement's preeminence. But someone like Trumka just might help return it to relevance.

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