CHICAGO -- For the first time in 16 years, Lane Kirkland is no longer president of the AFL-CIO. For the first time in its 114-year history, a sitting president of the AFL and its successor, the AFL-CIO, has been driven from office. Thomas Donahue, Kirkland's second in command as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer and his anointed successor, was elected interim president by the AFL-CIO Executive Council Aug. 1.
Kirkland's decision to "retire" came only after he recognized that the demand for change in the direction and leadership of the AFL-CIO was so deep-rooted and broadly-based that he could not win reelection to the position he inherited from George "I-never-led-a-strike" Meany in 1979.
Kirkland's demise was foreshadowed during the February meeting of the executive council when several members, most of them presidents of the country's largest unions, bluntly told Kirkland things had to change and the surest guarantee of that would be for him to step aside. Kirkland was offered a choice between honorable retirement or ignominious defeat.
When Kirkland refused the first and maneuvered to avoid the second, 11 members of the council announced their intention to field a reform slate of candidates when AFL-CIO elections take place at the federation's convention in October.
The "New Voice for American Workers" ticket, headed by John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees Union, includes Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson. Trumka, who seeks the post of secretary-treasurer, is president of the United Mine Workers of America, while Chavez-Thompson, candidate for executive vice-president, is an area vice president of the State, County and Municipal Employees. Their slate will be opposed by one headed by Donahue and Barbara Easterling, who was selected by the council to succeed Donahue as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer.
At a press briefing on the opening day of the council meeting, Sweeney spoke of the need to "recreate a [labor] movement that will improve the lives of working people, not just protect them from current assaults. Our members need to see a labor movement that is a powerful voice on behalf of their interests and unorganized workers need to see a movement that can make their lives better."
Topping the list of the eight-point New Voices program is organizing the unorganized, to which Sweeney would allocate "at least $20 million to organize over a short period of time." The Sweeney program calls for the AFL-CIO to "bring the same organizing vision to the political world that it brings to the workplace," adding, "We cannot borrow other people's power [or] rely on the power of any political party ... [W]e must, above all, build our own power by creating a strong grassroots political voice for working people ... that promotes a clear agenda of workers' rights."
Sweeney pledges to overhaul the AFL-CIO's public relations work and to bring forward "many new public faces and voices" for U.S. unions. The labor movement must "speak forcefully on behalf of all working people," he said.
The New Voices for American Workers program calls for a labor movement that "speaks for and looks like today's workforce" and opens "new opportunities for women, minorities and young people ... We must recommit ourselves to celebrating the diversity of our unions, while finding new ways to build needed solidarity."
The leadership contest has already changed the nature of the debate over the future direction of the labor movement as leaders of some 26 unions, representing 60 percent of the AFL-CIO-affiliated membership, have endorsed the Sweeney ticket.
It is not written in stone that this alignment will survive the heat of an election campaign that has now moved into high gear. Although different unions have lined up behind each candidate, the division is not clearly between "good guys" and "bad guys," just as it is not a clash between personalities. The issues are about change -- about what kind, how much and how fast.
The battle over the future direction of the AFL-CIO is part and parcel of the class struggle -- a struggle in which the ruling class has a direct interest. Powerful forces have an interest in a labor movement wedded to class collaboration at home and support of imperialist ventures abroad. They had both during the 16 years that Kirkland held the helm of the AFL-CIO -- and have no intention of giving it up without a fight.
In their effort to hold back or sidetrack the rank and file demand for a fighting labor movement, reaction can depend on its agents within the labor movement for help. It is not accidental that Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and John Joyce, the corrupt president of the Bricklayers, are among Sweeney's most vocal opponents.
It has been written that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Given Shanker's well-know reputation as a red-baiting right-wing Social Democrat who bitterly opposes affirmative action, the same applies to the two-and-a-half months remaining until the votes are cast at the AFL-CIO convention.
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