It is too bad that Lane Kirkland had to be pushed out as president of the AFL-CIO when he could have bowed out gracefully after five decades in service to organized labor. At 73, fixed in his ways ("This is what I do; I don't do anything else") and unwilling to "demean" himself by going on national TV as the unions' top spokesman, he already had stayed too long when younger, aggressive leaders ushered him into retirement.
His awkward exit may have the added result of denying the succession to Thomas Donahue, the AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, who labored so long in Mr. Kirkland's shadow. By grace of hierarchical progression, Mr. Donahue had been destined for the top spot just as Mr. Kirkland, before him, had waited for the redoubtable George Meany to step down in 1969. But Mr. Donahue, 66, his hopes stymied by Mr. Kirkland's persistence, announced recently that he would retire. It now is problematical that his reentry as a contender can succeed.
Opposing the old guard is a group of AFL-CIO constituent union bosses who represent many of the lower-paid, less skilled workers whose interests are not always safeguarded by blue-collar craftsmen and white-collar professionals. Their candidate, due to be announced today, is John J. Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union, which lately has staged some successful "Justice for Janitors" protests.
Emotion is always a part of labor politics, and this is no exception. For Mr. Sweeney is a protege of Mr. Donahue, the one-time head of the SEIU. There could yet be an accommodation to avoid a contest between these two old friends.
Such an arrangement, however, might not be healthy for the labor movement. With its membership dwindling to less than 15 percent of the American work force and its political clout at a nadir in the Republican-controlled Congress, the unions need to reassess. They need a good debate. Such is the thinking of leaders such as Mr. Sweeney, Gerald E. McEntee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Richard L. Trumka of the United Mine Workers.
Mr. Trumka, especially, yearns for a tough, charismatic leader in the tradition of his own union's legendary John L. Lewis. He would want labor to be more confrontational, more willing to take risks, more eager to organize than to play the Washington lobbying game. In response to such thinking, Mr. Kirkland said just before he bowed out that he has yet to find a "Mr. Wonderful."
Mr. Sweeney probably does not so classify himself. But his backers agree the AFL-CIO needs to rediscover its effectiveness and reconnect with America. Otherwise, it will continue to be regarded by most citizens as a detriment rather than a source of advance for the average working citizen.