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AFL-CIO wants to make comeback by soothing old rivalries, getting new members

Sign up for great benefits! Charge lots with a new credit card! Only pennies a day. Join a union. Yes, join a union.

In its bid to reverse its declining role in the work force, the labor movement is trying to draw in new members. This week, the AFL-CIO gave its 95 unions a wider and stronger net to do just that.

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``I want our organization to grow,'' said AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland at a press conference here. He acknowledged the dramatic declines in some unions. ``I think we'll be able, with some effort and with some new approaches on our part, to turn that around.''

At its midwinter meeting here in Bal Harbor, Fla., the federation's executive council presented two new possibly far-reaching measures dealing with organizing new workers. The first, designed to reduce union organizing rivalries, was approved Tuesday. The second is a package of member benefits including credit cards, group insurance, prepaid legal benefits, and investment instruments. It is still on the drawing boards.

Even as unions work to attract new members, some say they are not doing enough to satisfy their present ones. In their meeting here, the federation's executive council refused to hear leaders of the meatpackers on strike against the Geo. A. Hormel & Co. plant in Austin, Minn. AFL-CIO leaders are siding with the national United Food and Commercial Workers Union against the Austin local workers.

Union infighting for members has dogged the labor movement during the last 50 years. The 1955 merger of the AFL and the CIO helped put a stop to unions raiding each other's membership. But until now, there was no formal procedure for resolving interunion rivalries over new members.

This lack came into sharp focus last year in Ohio, where 42,000 state employees were up for grabs because of a new state law allowing them to have unions negotiate their contracts. Eleven unions squared off -- two in particular locked horns over a unit of 6,000 Ohio health-care workers. That dispute was never satisfactorily resolved.

The new procedure would reduce infighting by forcing unions to mediate disputes and, if necessary, abide by the decision of a permanent umpire. The mandatory rule is significant because unions, in effect, are giving away some of their autonomy to the federation, union sources say, reflecting a trend of centralizing power under the AFL-CIO.

``I think it will be one of the most important steps that American labor has taken in a number of years,'' says Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which eventually was voted in by the 6,000 disputed health-care workers in Ohio. And the procedure could lead to unions coordinating and targeting organizing campaigns and saving considerable money in the process.

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In the Ohio campaign, for example, AFSCME spent some $9 million to organize 37,000 workers -- or roughly $240 per worker. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) picked up no state workers and some local-level units after spending some $2 million. ``Too much,'' says CWA president Morton Bahr. ``The resolution . . . would have avoided a lot that happened in Ohio.''

In its other push for new members, the federation presented the outlines of a package of new benefits. It is intended not only for existing members but also to attract a new category of so-called associate members. These workers would not have the union negotiate their contracts, as traditional union members do, but would sign up merely to receive such things as union-sponsored group life and health insurance, prepaid legal benefits, and a union credit card. The AFL-CIO is currently negotiating with the Bank of New York to become the card-issuing institution. Final details may be presented to the federation's executive council in May.

The benefit package, one proposal that emerged from the AFL-CIO's committee on the evaluation of work, could expand organized labor's reach beyond its traditional focus on bargaining contracts. What is not clear is how far unions will push the concept and whether it will work.

``The IRAs [Individual Retirement Accounts] and the credit cards, we get so much of that from other sources,'' says Harvey Friedman, director of the labor center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. ``It really takes us away from the main purpose of unions.''

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