Labor needs `more of today and tomorrow, less of yesterday'. AFL-CIO meets to try to halt the drop in unions' size and influence
The AFL-CIO convention, opening today in Anaheim, Calif., faces major problems of a declining labor movement. Its future depends on focusing ``more on today and tomorrow, not yesterday,'' according to Thomas R. Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations. One shift away from AFL-CIO ``yesterdays'' will be the presence of Labor Secretary William Brock for frank discussions with union leaders in Anaheim. Labor secretaries have not been welcome during previous executive council conventions in the years since Ronald Reagan took office.
There is still a deep, political dissatisfaction with President Reagan among the ranks of labor leadership. AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland has blamed the Reagan administration's ``studied indifference to the rising tide of imports'' for the decline of American exports, plant closings, bankruptcies, farm foreclosures, and recessionary unem ployment levels. Other disagreements have centered on the administration's budget proposals and its position on tax reform. But, with Secretary Brock mending union fences, day-to-day communications between the administration and labor have largely been restored.
In a speech which Mr. Kirkland is expected to read at the convention today, he says ``powerful forces in this country'' want to drive organized labor out of politics, but the AFL-CIO is ``in politics to stay.''
Mr. Kirkland is likely to repeat past reservations over Democratic leaders who seem to want the party to loosen its ties to unions and want the AFL-CIO to be less aggressive in exerting political influence.
But its activities show that the AFL-CIO has no intention of staying in the background and only delivering votes. It is already active in supporting candidates for Congress and it is planning to play a big role in the issues of the 1988 presidential race. The federation has on its agenda a long list of proposals concerning foreign trade and the protection of US jobs theatened by imports; ``fairness'' of tax reforms; unemployment's excessively high level (7 percent by government figures, over 8 percent b y labor's); action requiring divestiture of banking and business investments in South Africa; and other legislative and policy matters.
A major convention emphasis is also expected to be placed on ways to relieve US labor's internal problems.
Union fortunes have declined steadily in recent years. Today only 19 percent of the workforce belongs to unions, compared with 23 percent in 1980, and 35 percent a decade ago. While leaders still defend their movement as a strong force in economic, social, and political affairs, they admit that substantive changes are needed.
``We are a terribly parochial movement,'' Mr. Donahue said in a recent press conference, adding that the base for union membership needs to be widened.
Kenneth Young, assistant to Mr. Kirkland, supported the Donahue statement. He noted that, while 34 million new workers were added to the labor force in the 1960s and 1970s, union memberships failed to increase correspondingly because of job losses in basic industries. During the first half of 1980, membership figures declined in absolute numbers as well as in percentages of the labor force.
``There are a lot more people out there looking to labor for help. They need us and we need them,'' Mr. Young said.
The problem to be faced is how to get the two together.
The Anaheim convention runs for four days and well over 1,000 delegates are expected to participate. The goals of the convention are to revitalize unionism by designing and approving ways to make unions more attractive to young workers. The federation is looking for ways to woo back disenchanted union dropouts, and to organize groups of workers now outside the jurisdictions of established unions.
Many of the proposals to be placed before the convention are contained in a report, ``The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions.'' The report is based on a two-year AFL-CIO study of the union movement.
Some leaders are skeptical about the proposed new strategies. They say they are too great a departure from traditional structures, values, and policies of labor. However, there is a grudging agreement that changes are vital and that unless the AFL-CIO and its unions adopt new ways, labor's decline will not be reversed.