WASHINGTON -- AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland's retirement in the face of a strong insurgency doesn't necessarily guarantee the demise of the Old Guard that has dominated organized labor going back to the iron-fisted days of George Meany, the man Kirkland succeeded 16 years ago.
The parallel decision of Kirkland's right-hand man, Tom Donahue, to change his own mind about retirement and bid for the labor federation's leadership can yet throw a monkey wrench into the takeover effort led by Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The insurgency group, which has announced its own slate headed by John Sweeney, head of the Service Employees International Union and a one-time Donahue protege, claims to have the backing of enough AFL-CIO unions to ensure Sweeney's election at the federation's convention in late October.
But Donahue is expected to be chosen as interim president by the AFL-CIO executive council, still dominated by the Old Guard, when it meets in Chicago on Aug. 1, the effective date of Kirkland's retirement. If that happens, the popular Donahue will have nearly three months to garner support from the insurgency group. This is not an impossible task, because many insurgents, including Sweeney, had called on Donahue earlier to offer himself for the presidency.
Rather than challenge Kirkland, his longtime colleague and leader, Donahue decided to retire. But he reconsidered after Kirkland's decision the other day to step aside at age 73.
Although the insurgents went ahead and announced their own slate anyway, signs of cracks in their solidarity already have appeared. Before that announcement, Sonny Hall, international
president of the Transport Workers Union of America, wrote McEntee last week protesting the action being taken without his being informed that Donahue was reconsidering his availability.
Hall asked, unsuccessfully, for a postponement of the planned press conference to announce the choice of Sweeney to be president and Richard Trumka, president of the United Mine Workers, to be secretary-treasurer.
Sweeney, at 61, and Donahue, at 66, are both viewed as transitional figures likely to be replaced ultimately by Trumka, who is only 45 in an organization with a history of favoring leaders with gray in their hair.
Hall, in his letter, noted "how strong we all felt for many months" that Donahue should succeed Kirkland as "the best course for our labor movement to follow." He concluded by suggesting that "a coalition team between Tom Donahue and our proposed candidates would serve as a considerable foundation for rebuilding our labor unity in an expedited fashion."
Other union leaders associated with the insurgency are vowing to stick with Sweeney. But the fact that Donahue earlier had been seen by many as an ideal transition figure is an encouraging sign to his backers that others will switch in the interest of preventing a split when the labor movement faces daunting challenges.
Donahue has been credited with a number of innovations in organization and communications, but the insurgents argue that the AFL-CIO suffers from tired blood and a defeatist image. They cite its failure to block the North American Free Trade Agreement and to get Congress to enact an anti-striker-replacement bill.
According to a federation spokesman, membership in the AFL-CIO increased by 150,000 in 1993 and 240,000 in 1994, but with a growing work force nationwide failed to gain ground. The federation now represents 16.1 percent of the work force compared with 24 percent 30 years ago. Exclude government employees and the figure drops to 12 percent.
One defender of the insurgency says the time has come for the federation to end its closed ways and let fresh air in with an open leadership challenge. "The House of Labor is not the Vatican," this insurgent argues.
A Donahue loyalist counters that with Congress in hostile hands, "this is no time for the labor movement to be having a civil war." Nevertheless, that's clearly what the AFL-CIO is now facing.