BAL HARBOUR, Fla. -- John Sweeney brushed off reporters as he emerged from an unprecedented executive session at the recent meeting of the 33-member AFL-CIO Executive Council here. "I have nothing to say," he said as he took a break during the five-hour-long session on Feb. 21.
Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union, was one of those who expressed concern over the future role of the AFL-CIO -- and not coincidentally, the future of Lane Kirkland, who succeeded George Meany as AFL-CIO president in 1979.
"The discussion of Lane Kirkland's future has really turned into a discussion of how we address all our difficulties," Sweeney said. And the difficulties are many.
In addition to fighting off employer attacks, there are problems dealing with a White House that crammed NAFTA down the throats of the labor movement and gave only token support to legislation banning permanent replacement of strikers; the problems between the 13-million member organization and the Democratic Party; the report of the Dunlop Commission with its invitation to re-establish company unions and the awesome challenges posed by a Congress dominated by right-wing Republicans and their Democratic collaborators.
Speculation about Kirkland's future was given its first public airing at his press conference on the opening day of the week-long council meeting. "Are you going to run for re-election," he was asked.
"I will deal with that question in good season -- as I usually do," he said pompously.
Then, in what many saw as an effort to use the mass media to blunt criticism of his leadership, Kirkland launched into a long-winded filibuster in defense of his record. "He took credit for everything good and never once mentioned PATCO,"a long-time critic told me.
The subject came up again two days later. "When do you expect to decide when you will or will not seek re-election?" Kirkland was asked during a second press conference. And again the fancy footwork: "In the fullness of time," he said. Officers will be elected at the AFL-CIO convention, set for next October in New York City.
When asked to "sum up briefly what happened at the executive session of the Council," Kirkland described it as a "good meeting" where everyone spoke their minds. "More, I can't tell you," he said, adding he was "quite sure" reporters would be able to "ascertain" what had actually gone on.
The meeting in question, the result of growing pressure for Kirkland to "retire," was the first time critics of Kirkland's leadership -- a group that includes presidents of 10 international unions -- were able to confront him with their concerns in a closed door meeting.
Kirkland, a well-trained and cunning in-fighter, attempted to don the garb of a martyr as he lashed back at his critics. Kirkland reminded United Mine Workers President Richard Trumka that he "had gone to jail" during the Pittston strike and asked International Association of Machinists' President George Kourpias to remember his stint on IAM picket lines during the strike against Eastern Airlines. This prompted one council member to say, "That's what we pay per capita payments for."
This reporter was told by several of those who had attended the meeting that Teamsters President Ron Carey was the first to speak, telling council members the AFL-CIO had to be "more aggressive in the defense of working people."
Carey was followed by others, including Sweeney, long-rumored to be a leader in the "dump Kirkland" faction, State County and Municipal Employees President Gerald McEntee, Government Employees President John Sturdivant, Trumka and Kourpias. Others among those questioning the advisability of Kirkland's continued leadership include the presidents of the Steelworkers and Autoworkers.
Rumors of Kirkland's retirement have flourished before, especially in AFL-CIO convention years. But in the past they have died aborning as the products of wishful thinking by a few unidentified council members.
Things are different this time. Council members are willing to be quoted on the record. As Trumka told this reporter, "The process [of redefining ourselves and the question of AFL-CIO leadership] has to take place."
Trumka said he advocated "more Solidarity Day demonstrations" that saw 500,000 marchers descend on Washington Sept. 19, 1981 in response to the call of the AFL-CIO. Even some of Kirkland's supporters see the need for more aggressive leadership. "I would have the AFL-CIO picket the White House and Congress," Bill Bywater, president of the Electronic Workers, said.
The fact that several members of the council have come forward to question the way the AFL-CIO does business opens the door for carrying that discussion into every local union, central labor body and state federation across the country. To leave the question to debate behind the closed doors of the "House of Labor,"as Kirkland would have it, will not provide the answers to more effective solidarity, the search for political independence and to organizing the unorganized.
Those who would answer the question, "whither the AFL-CIO?" can take a leaf from the book of the 70-member delegation from the "War Zone" in central Illinois who rode buses and vans for 25 hours in order to bring their demand for more aggressive support to the Bal Harbour meeting. "Don't let the battle in Illinois become another PATCO," they said in a statement presented to the council.
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