PITTSBURGH -- The scene at the Convention Center seemed more like an old-fashioned religious revival meeting than an AFL-CIO convention as it opened under the command of president John Sweeney, who took over from labor's old guard two years ago in an insurgent movement.
New union members from around the country marched up to the podium and gave personal testimony about their successful labor organizing fights in a host of professions and industries, many of them long-resistant to any union presence.
The mood was celebratory and proud, and it marked a sharp contrast from past AFL-CIO conventions under the old guard, whose boasts of political clout rang hollowly in the face of evidence that organized labor was losing strength and influence.
Static membership and repeated defeats on legislative objectives, from campaigns for a higher minimum wage to the effort to block the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), cast a cloud over the earlier conventions under Mr. Sweeney's predecessor, Lane Kirkland.
This time around, John Sweeney basked in the glow of bursting enthusiasm among the nearly 800 delegates. Part of it, %o obviously, was the successful outcome of the Teamsters union's strike against United Parcel Service over treatment of part-time workers and other issues.
Mr. Sweeney had rallied the entire labor movement behind the Teamsters in a show of unity that itself, one speaker said, made the UPS strike a better organizer than all the considerable organizing efforts undertaken under the new Sweeney regime.
Other achievements, such as passage of new minimum-wage legislation, gave the AFL-CIO membership something substantial to crow about, after years of being dismissed in many quarters as a paper tiger.
Speaker after speaker declared that the labor movement, after cutting the Republican majority in the House in the 1996 elections, would complete the job in 1998 and return the House to control of labor's longtime ally, the Democratic Party.
The one man who would be the chief political beneficiary of such a success, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who would replace Newt Gingrich as speaker, urged the delegates on with a rousing speech that drew repeated standing ovations. He painted the Republican majority as hell-bent on destroying labor's influence and ability to organize.
Mr. Gephardt fired up the audience with a commitment to fight against President Clinton's new push for fast-track trade legislation that does not have specific labor and environmental protections built in. Defeat of the legislation is called a litmus test for labor support of members of Congress, executive vice president Linda Chavez-Thompson says.
Mr. Gephardt, on course to be a candidate, clearly hopes that the fight over fast-track -- giving Congress only an up or down vote on trade deals without amendments -- will be the prime determining factor in whether the AFL-CIO endorsement goes to him or to Vice President Al Gore, if such an endorsement is made.
The contrast between Mr. Gephardt's appearance here and Mr. Gore's was sharp. Mr. Gore came only before the convention opened and in a meeting with the AFL-CIO Executive Council said nothing about the fast-track legislation, nor according to all reports was he even asked about it. He has been a staunch labor supporter on other issues, but his silence on fast-track certainly will not help him within the AFL-CIO.
Other pro-labor members of Congress, including Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle and Bob Torricelli and Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, laid their fealty on thick in speeches to the convention -- a recognition that organized labor is getting its political muscle back.
The key, as Mr. Sweeney noted, is the focus on union organizing that has been moved to the forefront of the federation's agenda. Secretary-treasurer Rich Trumka told reporters that spending for organizing has been increased from 5 percent of the AFL-CIO budget in pre-Sweeney days to 30 percent.
President Sweeney also called on member unions to give less money to political parties and candidates from now on -- and more to the union organizing campaign and efforts to register 4 million new union family voters. That might restore labor's political credibility, eroded so deeply under the old guard.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 9/26/97