NEW YORK -- The nation's labor unions, for years mired on the margins of industry and politics and lately rent by discord, are massing in New York City this week to try to reinvent themselves.
Four months after an insurgency chased Lane Kirkland from the presidency of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the federation's national convention will choose as his successor either his longtime deputy, Thomas R. Donahue, or a leader of the coup, John J. Sweeney, in the first contested presidential election in the organization's 40-year history.
But far more than the selection of a new face to lead them was on the minds of the delegates as they began gathering this weekend for sessions that do not officially begin until tomorrow.
While troubles remain, labor these days is becoming infused with a sense of renaissance, buoyed by union mergers that promise renewed strength; by a new emphasis on organizing unskilled, low-wage workers, a development reminiscent of the earliest days of the American labor movement; by plans to mount aggressive campaigns against congressional Republicans at the polls next year; and by plans to open the federation's top ranks to long-excluded women and minorities.
To a large extent, changes like these probably were inevitable if big labor was to survive as a force in the U.S. economy. Even now, its officials worry of its consigning itself to "irrelevance," a term that Mr. Sweeney was the first federation leader to invoke openly.
"That's what this convention is about," he said in an interview. "Our numbers continue to decline. Our political effectiveness continues to decline."
The weeklong national convention is the first for the federation since the Republican sweep in November reduced union partisans in Congress to a small minority.
Largely as a result of that sweep, the federation now sees itself as the only remaining sizable institution in a position to speak for American workers and thwart what it calls a relentless political assault on their wages, benefits and long-standing rights, including the freedom to strike or organize without fear of being fired.
Both candidates for the presidency are Irish-American New Yorkers, groomed in the same service workers' local in the city, but they bring very different credentials to the election, scheduled for Wednesday.
Mr. Sweeney, 61, is head of a union that, during a decade of shrinking membership among unions generally, has doubled in size, to 1 million, by attracting the low-wage workers that many other unions have ignored. He arrives at the convention, held every two years, claiming the support of unions that account for 55 percent of the votes.
Mr. Donahue, 67, who has been president of the federation since Mr. Kirkland was sent into forced retirement this summer, is the candidate of most small unions and professes support for the entire Kirkland record, which critics say was largely characterized by sluggishness in organizing.
Mr. Donahue acknowledges that he is behind in the race but says he hopes to lure more votes his way, and his supporters are looking for fights over rules to let some unions, whose delegates normally vote as unanimous blocs, split their votes.
The sense that the labor movement, which today represents only 15.5 percent of all workers, stands at the cusp of a renaissance has particularly swept many of the bigger and richer unions and is making the convention, at the New York Sheraton, the largest in the federation's history.
More than 1,000 voting delegates, most of them representatives of the federation's 78 unions and their 13 million members, will not only elect the new leader but also adopt scores of goal-setting resolutions. "Whatever the outcome," said Peter DiCicco, a top federation official, "it means change for the better. It puts us on a new track. That's what we're all encouraged by."
Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, said: "This is an extremely important moment, not just for the labor movement but for the country. This could be a point of regeneration, depending on whether they're able to live up to their goals and platforms."
Daniel J. B. Mitchell, a labor economist at the University of California at Los Angeles, said given the 20-year erosion of blue-collar wages and benefits, along with layoffs and the proliferation of temporary and part-time jobs, "there's a ferment out there for somebody to capture."
"Unions," he said, "have to find a way of seizing that issue."
Mr. Sweeney's Service Employees International Union is one that already has, Professor Mitchell said. "They organized 8,000 janitors around Los Angeles," he said. "You just don't see gains like that these days."
Such experts say the very contesting of the presidential election is a sign that the house of labor enters this convention on the threshold of real change after the 16-year tenure of Mr. Kirkland, whose ouster arose from a sentiment within many unions that he could not relate to the rank and file and that he gave little more than lip service to aggressively organizing new workers.
His secretary-treasurer, Mr. Donahue, may defend Mr. Kirkland's record, but is nonetheless keeping abreast of Mr. Sweeney in promising change.
Much of the change is already well under way. A wave of mergers has swept a union movement eager to consolidate its resources, the better to take on the giant employers that labor accuses of chipping away at the middle-class standard of living the unions won long ago.