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AFL-CIO's staid leadership may be ousted from within


WASHINGTON -- This not being an election year here, it was surprising and unusual to find in a downtown Washington park yesterday a full-blown noontime political campaign rally going on, complete with a band, banners, campaign buttons and all the rest.

A massive red banner proclaiming "A New Voice for American Workers" looked out on a crowd of several hundred cheering faithful, many wearing caps with union insignia.

It was the official public kickoff of a comparably unusual event -- the open bid to challenge the existing power structure of the AFL-CIO, an organization with a long history of closed politics and static leadership.

John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union, third largest and fastest-growing in the national federation, claimed to be able to "hear the winds of change rattling the shuttered windows of the AFL-CIO," organized labor's fortress headquartered only a couple of blocks away.

As a candidate to replace retiring AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, Sweeney is heading the ticket of insurgents that also includes Rich Trumka, president of the United Mine Workers, running for secretary-treasurer, and Linda Chavez-Thompson, a longtime Texas organizer running for what would be a new post as executive vice president.

Sweeney is opposing veteran Kirkland deputy Tom Donahue, 66, who was Sweeney's choice to replace Kirkland before he announced his retirement.

Donahue declined to run against Kirkland, but when the federation's president decided to step down, Donahue announced he would seek the presidency after all.

At 61, Sweeney has the look and manner of an old-time union leader who would not be Central Casting's choice to lead at what he told the crowd was "this revolutionary moment."

Trumka, who is only 47 and a firebrand on the stump, would be Central Casting's obvious choice, but revolutions in organized labor, at least at the national level, don't usually come in generational leaps. The smart money is on Trumka to take over somewhere down the road, if the insurgents succeed in an October election.

In the 109 years since the American Federation of Labor (AFL) succeeded the original Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, there have been only five presidents in a history that saw the old Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) form, join and split from the national federation and join it again -- Samuel Gompers, John McBride, William Green, George Meany and Kirkland.

In all that time, there have been few challenges to the leadership. In 1894, McBride running with Socialist support ousted Gompers but he was re-elected in 1895 and served until his death in 1924.

In 1912, Socialist Max Hayes challenged Gompers but was defeated. When Gompers died, Green was elected and served for the next 28 years. Upon his death, Meany took over for 27 more, until he died, at which time Kirkland moved in.

So while the AFL-CIO presidency is not officially a lifetime job, it had just about worked out that way until Kirkland decided to retire. But after the days of high drama in the labor movement of the 1930s, organized labor has fallen on lean times, with membership plunging and its influence on Congress all but nil.

That is at the core of the challenge now, as the insurgents pledge to restructure the federation for more aggressive organizing that in turn will give it more legislative as well as collective-bargaining clout.

Sweeney and Co. are pledging "at least $20 million" a year over the next two years for organizing "at a pace and scale that is unprecedented," including creation of a Sunbelt Organizing Fund to break into the region of fastest job growth and, historically, most resistance to union representation.

The insurgents' platform includes a call for training and deploying 1,000 new organizers "with a special emphasis on women and minorities" in an organization in which both have been in short supply in the top leadership.

They also propose an age 70 limit for election of general officers, which would give Sweeney a maximum of "only" nine years to serve if elected and re-elected.

But the insurgents, in their fashion, are trying to buck tradition, and the very act of challenging the leadership by openly campaigning in public is a clear break with the past.

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