Attending the AFL-CIO's national convention in Detroit two months ago, Ernie Grecco thought the century-old labor federation had lost its bearings. Boring speechifying dominated the four days of proceedings, predictable people uttered predictable bromides. The six Democratic presidential candidates who pleaded for labor's support stirred no excitement.
"There just wasn't anything to inspire the rank and file, to promote grass-roots participation," complained Mr. Grecco, president of the Baltimore Metropolitan AFL-CIO. Unlikeprevious meetings, he said, there were no nuts-and-bolts workshops, and there was little free time for informally sharing ideas and (P strategies. "It just didn't seem like a labor union convention to me."
The boring convention aside, his reaction seems to reflect a growing concern that the AFL-CIO and the national union hierarchies are too remote from the basic needs of local labor unions and their members.
The old Washington insider politics of the AFL-CIO seems less and less effective. The federation's forced support of Michael Dukakis in 1988 highlighted the lack of a genuine national political partner for labor; a similar movement is developing for unions to jump on the Bill Clinton bandwagon.
And in the separate unions, lunchpail members are growing restless with the inability of entrenched union leadership to motivate them and to respond to their needs. Dissident or reform groups are springing up in even the most monolithic unions.
So a week ago, the Baltimore AFL-CIO sought to revitalize its member unions and to reorient the local labor movement toward the unmet needs of working people (and former working people now on unemployment). It held a two-day meeting in Atlantic City for more than 100 local union representatives to rekindle the fire of unionism, to exchange ideas and beefs, to press for solidarity on the picket lines, to mobilize rank and file for political campaigns. The resort setting was chosen to increase attendance, but roll call was regularly taken to make sure the participants stuck to the discussion tables and not to the gaming tables.
Avoiding raids or competition between unions in organizing the same members was another priority for Mr. Grecco, who feels unions are needlessly wasting their limited resources in such destructive campaigns. (The meeting took place just as the Teamsters and Seafarers squared off in a government-held election to represent workers at a small plastics recycler in Anne Arundel County.)
"It was very helpful to hear about the concerns and the activities of the other unions and to search for ways in which we can work together more effectively," said Bill Bolander, of Council 92, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
"We need a lot more unity among unions in dealing with labor issues," added Bill Kaczorowski, of the Building and Construction Trades Council. "We all have to improve communication and get our people involved in these things."
The conference strictly avoided speeches, and lots of participants lingered after the closing to continue talking shop. The Baltimore council wants to make it an annual event.
As in other parts of the country, union membership in the Baltimore area has leveled off or declined in recent years: the AFL-CIO metropolitan council rolls vary between 125,000 and 175,000 individual members, depending on employment conditions, about the same range as in 1980.
In the absence of growth, unions need to use their talents and resources better in the political and collective bargaining arenas. Complacency, lip service to goals, and business as usual is a doomed approach, Mr. Grecco says. It's not a radically new philosophy that is needed to attract and keep members, he believes, but a committed return to old values and traditions.
In the hierarchy of the national AFL-CIO, the effects of member discontent are most obvious.
Three members of the AFL-CIO's 33-member governing executive council were voted out of office by their own unions and stepped down from the council.
The Teamsters union is the most obvious example of rank and file rejection of the old guard. Supervised by government overseers, the 1.6 million-member union held its first democratic direct election of national officers, the so-called reform candidates rolling to outright victory and installing the first woman to sit on the Teamsters board.
The new officers are moving to slash the bloated, multiple salaries of Teamsters officials and shrink their plutocratic budget and perks. After these symbolic moves will come the real test: organizing new workers and negotiating tougher national contracts. But Ron Carey's election as Teamsters president was not a clear mandate, suggesting an embedded skepticism and apathy toward union elections that will be hard to overcome: little more than a quarter of the members bothered to vote, and Mr. Carey didn't even get a majority of those votes cast, only a plurality.
It's unclear how much the Teamsters' example will affect other unions. The government intervention was based on the persistent influence of organized crime on this, the largest U.S. private sector union, not on the long-standing abuses of Teamsters bosses and their penchant for imposing contracts rejected by a majority of members.
Corruption and abuse are not the only causes of rank-and-file backlash; often, it's because the union establishment seems incapable of representing its members' interests. Unions that ignore the majority vote on approving contracts seem most vulnerable, as do those that work to short-circuit democratic elections of officials, or boost officer salaries while the working members take pay cuts. The process of weeding out entrenched union officers and "porkchoppers" who live on the union dole is under way.
Concessions by unions has been the recurrent theme of recent labor contracts: workers paying more for their health care each year, accepting givebacks or smaller wage settlements, facing the real threat of being replaced if they go on strike. Mass layoffs or furloughs occur regularly, despite the "job security" provisions in union contracts. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for the past two years show that unions wage settlements averaged far less than half the increases of a decade earlier.
A return to labor's essential strength of solidarity -- of working together, supporting each other's causes, of communicating instead of litigating differences -- can reinvigorate unions and reinforce their mission, Mr. Grecco said.
One idea is to publish a council newspaper to reach all union members in the Baltimore area. Another is to mobilize the unions' greatest political asset: the numbers of rank and file members who work the phone banks, knock on doors, run the errands and get out the vote on election day.
"If you can't show the numbers of people involved [in campaign support], you don't get the kind of respect you want from those elected officials."