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American Labor Battle Enlists Minorities

With three out of every five new union members women or members of a minority, they are pivotal in the AFL-CIO power struggle

THE white male union leaders vying for control of the US labor movement are to a large degree battling for the allegiance of women and minority workers.

In fact, three out of every five people who accept a union membership card today are women or members of a minority or both. The statistic highlights the biggest challenge for the feuding leaders: to embrace the new diverse membership vital to reinvigorating unions while not antagonizing the white male workers who have always been the base of power for US labor.

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On the one hand, the new women and minority recruits have bolstered union efforts to reverse the decline of organized labor, which claims a smaller share of the work force today than at any time since the Great Depression.

Yet the new female and minority union members are pressuring the leaders to welcome unionists of a different sex and race.

It is this fundamental tension that, to a large degree, is driving the most bitter internal struggle in the US labor movement since its umbrella group - the AFL-CIO - was founded 40 years ago.

Last week, a group of rebel unionists proposed a three-member leadership slate that included Linda Chavez-Thompson, the first woman and minority nominated for a top AFL-CIO post. Currently just five of the group's 35-member executive council are women or from a minority group.

The dissident faction, which has waged a successful campaign to topple AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, will submit its candidates to the federation at an October convention. The group aims to topple the current AFL-CIO leadership, citing, among many reasons, its neglect of the needs of women and minority workers.

If AFL-CIO leaders fail to promote diversity, they will probably continue to suffer an erosion in both union membership and political power, say labor experts.

Women in particular are steadily filling out the ranks of organized labor. Since 1983, the percentage of women in the unionized work force has risen from 33 percent to 39 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most of the women recruits work in the service and public sectors, the fastest areas for union growth.

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White male opposition

Still, the potential opposition to the rise of women and minorities is so great that even the insurgent labor organizers moved gingerly when they proposed Ms. Chavez-Thompson, a Hispanic and member of the AFL-CIO's executive council, for the position of executive vice president.

The position does not exist and must be created by a membership vote at the October convention. By making the ascent of a minority woman to the top echelon a matter of referendum rather than by appointing her outright to an existing position, the dissident leaders avoided a possible backlash by white male members, say labor experts.

The dissidents claim to represent about 58 percent of the 13.3 million members of AFL-CIO unions. Yet they will need at least 66 percent of the membership vote in order to amend the constitution and create the post for Chavez-Thompson.

"If they wanted to be diverse they would guarantee her [Chavez-Thompson] one of the two top seats," says Margaret Blackshear, secretary treasurer of the Illinois AFL-CIO. Ms. Blackshear is associated with the American Federation of Teachers, which has resisted the call to join 24 of the AFL-CIO's 80 member union and oppose the current federation leadership.

Even though the new post is just tentative, the nomination is a big step forward for women and minorities, labor experts say.

"It's a real movement ahead, a positive approach," says Helen Elkiss, an associate professor in the Chicago Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois in Chicago. In a recent study she showed how many women who aspire to top leadership positions in unions hit a glass ceiling.

Along with Chavez-Thompson, the dissident unionists proposed John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union, for the post of AFL-CIO president. Mr. Sweeney has won wide recognition by promoting women and minorities to senior union jobs and expanding the roll of his union from 626,000 members in 1980 to more than 1.1 million members today. The union is the fastest-growing affiliate in the AFL-CIO.

The opposition unionists rounded out their slate by nominating Richard Trumka, president of the United Mine Workers, for secretary-treasurer, the AFL-CIO's No. 2 post. Mr. Trumka, who at 45 is the youngest member on the executive council, would spearhead efforts to step up recruitment of young workers.

The current leadership

The current AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, Thomas Donahue, will probably announce his slate of candidates on Aug. 1, the date Mr. Kirkland plans to step down.

On that day the executive council is expected to appoint Mr. Donahue interim president.

Regardless of who the new president is, he will be under enormous pressure to meet the needs of women and minorities, say the experts. "It used to be the worker who wanted unions more than any other group was a white, male blue-collar worker but that is no longer true," says Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

"We find there is a vast reservoir of need and desire [for unions] among minority groups, people of color, and women," said Mr. McEntee, spokesman for the group of dissident union presidents.

Meanwhile, unions are trying to reassure unionized white males who are anxious about the growing influence of women and minorities, say labor executives and experts.

"We have white males who will feel threatened," says Chavez-Thompson, whose father was a west Texas sharecropper and union steward.

"But," she says, "we will show them that there is no need to feel threatened because this will be a labor movement that includes all people."

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