The severity of the crisis facing organized labor has overcome union leaders' proclivity for blind organizational loyalty and near-automatic opposition to internal dissent. "We can't wait any longer and watch the continued decline of the American labor movement," says Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and a leading player in the effort to replace the old AFL-CIO regime.
Having forced the retirement of Kirkland, the insurgent unions now appear poised to install a slate headed by John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Richard Trumka, president of the United Mine Workers of America, is the slate's candidate for secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO, the labor federation's number two position; and the insurgents have put forward Linda Chavez- Thompson, an AFSCME vice president, as their candidate for executive vice president, a newly-proposed position.
Although they will have to overcome the presidential candidacy of Tom Donahue, secretary treasurer under Kirkland, the insurgent coalition - led by big unions such as the Teamsters, AFSCME, SEIU, the United Auto Workers, the Machinists and the Steelworkers - claims already to have locked up more than half the votes for the October election.
If they are successful, the challenges facing Sweeney and the new AFL-CIO leadership will be enormous. They will have to chart a very different course than the one mapped out by the reclusive Kirkland if they hope to resuscitate the labor movement.
Kirkland failed in his role as a movement leader. He disdained public appearances, and failed to put a human face on the labor movement - even as it became increasingly important to do so as right-wing forces branded labor a "special interest." He failed to deliver as a political leader, providing no meaningful opposition to the Reagan onslaught and unable to eke out any significant victories even under the Democratic Clinton administration.
Kirkland acted decisively only in international affairs - and there destructively. His anti-communist mania led the AFL-CIO to work with the Reagan administration and the CIA, supporting conservative business unions and opposing progressive unions throughout the Third World - at exactly the time when alliances with progressive unions became critically important to respond to economic globalization.
If he takes the helm of the AFL-CIO, Sweeney's most important task will be to recruit new members to the labor movement. Organized labor now represents under 16 percent of the workforce, less than half the total in 1960. Representation in the private sector - where patterns are set for workers in both the private and public sectors - hovers around 10 percent.
The AFL-CIO does not do direct organizing - workers belong to the individual unions that combine to make up the federation, not to the federation itself - but it can lead a renewed movement-wide commitment to organizing.
Sweeney has compiled a strong record of supporting organizing as president of SEIU. SEIU has been one of the few unions in recent years to make a serious commitment to organizing - and its investment has paid off, with the union's membership growing by more than half in the last 15 years.
The union has successfully employed aggressive and innovative organizing strategies. Faced with the problem of building owners hiring janitors through independent contractors and then switching contractors if the janitors unionized, for example, SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign has refused to be defeated by the independent contractor ruse. Instead, it has led pickets, protests and sit-ins against the real employers - image- conscious building owners. The result: more than 30,000 building service workers organized in the last eight years.
If Sweeney can infuse the SEIU's creative organizing spirit into the entire labor movement and facilitate a substantial commitment of union resources to organizing - as he has promised to do - organized labor may be able to stop its decline.
Sweeney will also have to establish a high profile and set a new, forceful tone for the labor movement. He will have to appear regularly on the news talk shows and in the other public forums Kirkland avoided. But more importantly, he will have to speak to workers on the front lines of labor battles and work to become a figure with whom workers want to identify. One place to visit immediately is Decatur, Illinois, the site of three bitter strikes and lockouts, including one at Caterpillar, which is the biggest union- busting effort since the PATCO air controllers strike.
On the political front, a Sweeney-led labor movement can be expected to work more closely with community groups and national public interest organizations to promote a broad progressive agenda. And there is certainly no shortage of vital issues for labor to tackle (minimum wage, striker replacements, worker safety, health care, free trade, an investment-oriented national budget and daycare, to name just a few).
But although organizing and political activism reinforce each other, for the most part organizing must precede effective political action. Once the labor movement is an active presence in workplaces and again in sync with workers' mindsets, unions can reemerge as powerful players in the political arena.
With ultimate union power in the United States located in national unions rather than the national federation, the remaking of the AFL-CIO - if that is what a Sweeney takeover would signify - will not ensure the remaking of the U.S. labor movement. If the insurgents' success in internal politics jump-starts the movement, however, the prospects for a successful progressive response to the rightward lurch in U.S. politics will brighten.