Lane Kirkland &endash;

The AFL-CIO's last cold warrior

by Jim Smith

This article was written in 1995 before the AFL-CIO president's fall from power. However, it includes relevant information on the history of that organization and its involvement with right wing organizations and the government's foreign policy objectives. The title should not be taken literally. There are still many important "cold warriors" in the AFL-CIO establishment waiting for the day to return to power.

The Social Compact

Labor losing new class war

The one-party state begins to crack


Kirkland and the Socal Democrats

The White Male Club

The irrepressible miners union

Disaster upon disaster

The rebel alliance


They won't be toppling larger-than-life statues of Lane Kirkland, but in many other respects the AFL-CIO chief's slow-motion fall from power parallels the demise of his hated enemies in the former Soviet Bloc. Land Kirkland, Cold Warrior par excellence and scholarly leader of 13.3 million workers, apparently has been outmaneuvered by his old allies, the presidents of unions who hold a majority of the votes at the AFL-CIO convention this October.

The palace revolution against the 73-year-old Kirkland seems to have the support of the great majority of labor union activists. When the magazine Labor Notes asked its readers to vote for their choice for AFL-CIO president, nearly 800 responded. Only five voted to retain Kirkland. When hundreds of local and national union leaders turned out to hear Kirkland at an AFL-CIO forum, April 21 in Los Angeles, not one speaker took advantage of an open mike to urge Kirkland to continue his tenure.

The opposition to Kirkland surfaced earlier this year, but his troubles have their roots in foreign and domestic events that began during the Reagan years. While Ronald Reagan, to Kirkland's delight, was overheating the Soviet economy by forcing it to try to keep up with a greatly expanded arms race, he was also giving the green light to corporations to declare war on their unions.

The Social Compact

An informal social compact between corporations and unions dating back to mid-century had brought relative labor peace and prosperity to the two sides. Corporations agreed to wage and benefit increases in ritualized contract negotiations every three years. Labor institutionalized its struggle by taking it off the shop floor and into arbitration hearings. Collective bargaining arbitration and labor board proceedings were handled by labor relations "professionals." The role left to rank-and-file members was to pay their dues and gratefully accept annual wage increases.

In order to hold up its end of the social compact, "responsible" union leaders had to clean house. Communists, Socialists and even apolitical militants were all tarred with the red-baiting brush. With the help of anti-Communists industry councils and Congressional committees, those wanting to continue the day-to-day struggles against management either were driven out of their jobs or learned to shut up. Unions came to resemble insurance companies to whom members would turn on rare occasions when they had a problem on the job.

By the 1970s, foreign competition was forcing U.S. manufacturers to restructure in order to maintain high levels of profit. Auto, Steel, Rubber, Electrical and other industries began closing plants and making massive layoffs. Some local unions tried to form coalitions against plant closings. The results, in most cases, were pathetic. Community organizations that hadn't heard from a union in 30 years were asked to help save the jobs of some of the highest paid workers in town. In the end, the plants closed and the unions were shown to be powerless. Corporate observers got a first-hand look at how weak labor had become.

In retrospect, the wave of plant closings was only the opening sally before the all-out assault. The declaration of war was made by Ronald Reagan, in 1981, when he fired striking air traffic controllers who worked for the federal government. When PATCO struck, Reagan responded by permanently replacing 12,000 highly-skilled workers. It was the labor relations equivalent of tactical nuclear weapons.

During the previous years of the social compact, strikes were usually a set piece. The union walked out and the company obligingly closed its plant (often using up excess inventory). In many cases, health benefit payments continued to be made by the employer and company credit unions made loans to needy strikers.

Sidney Lens described a steel strike during this period: "At one of the Chicago mills, the United States Steel Company put up a desk, inside its gates, for the picket captain. It ran a power line and water to the union's six trailers where strikers were resting. One night it bought the boys some beer. At another mill, the corporation provided movable, washrooms for the union men."' Ironically, Lens reminisced, if the strike had been in 1936 or 1896, "there would have been strikebreakers, beatings, arrests, injunctions." Lens, and too many union leaders, believed that the old days would never return.

In one stroke, Reagan removed the strike as an option for the vast majority of workers. Now, workers had to choose between going on strike and keeping their jobs. In 1974, there had been 424 strikes each involving at least 1,000 workers. By 1994, there were only 45 such strikes.

Labor losing new class war

Since PATCO, the new class war has been a rout for labor. Real weekly wages (in 1982 dollars) fell from $315 in 1972 to only $253 in 1995. For millions of workers, health care premiums. formerly fully paid by the company were now at least partially coming out of workers" reduced paychecks. Pay cuts, not raises, turned up in thousands,of company collective bargaining proposals. In most negotiations, unions fought a slow retreat on contract language provisions that made life at work bearable. Many unions began claiming victory if they didn't have to accept everything the company wanted to take away.

In the 1980s, organizing the unorganized slowed to a crawl as corporations hired professional union busters who promised to maintain a "union-free environment." In long, drawn-out election campaigns, unions were hard-pressed to point to any good reasons why workers should risk the wrath of their bosses and vote for the union. Union-busters raised the specter of years of contract negotiations, lower wages, lower benefits, exorbitant dues and strikes that couldn't be won. Many union administrators concluded that organizing was not a good investment of resources and gave up.

Union membership that had peaked at 35.5 percent of the workforce in 1945 did not drop below 30 percent until 1973. The slow decline became a joy-ride downhill in the 1980s and 1990s and stands today at 15.5 percent.

It may have been just bad luck for Lane Kirkland that he took organized labor's helm in 1979 just as the roof fell in. The election of a Democratic president in 1992 actually made his plight worse. Rising expectations throughout the labor movement after Clinton's election came more from blind faith than from pronouncements of the new Democratic administration. Clinton's labor secretary, Robert Reich, was a Harvard professor, not a union person. Reich believed in job retraining and labor-management cooperation to boost productivity, but had little to say about unions.

Anticipation grew into alarm as Clinton and the Democrats first fumbled the jobs bill, then health care reform, and passed NAFTA without promised labor protections. Last summer, Democrats failed to shut off a mock-filibuster by Republicans against a bill that would have outlawed the permanent replacement,of strikers. Some in labor, including AFL-CIO ,Secretary-Treasurer Tom Donahue promised that a forthcoming report by the Dunlop Commission would spark irresistible pressure for labor law reform in favor of unions. Meanwhile, anti-union Republicans won control of the House of Representatives, in spite of Kirkland and Donahue's best efforts on behalf of Democrats.

Instead of leading the, way to labor law reform, the report of the Dunlop Commission, released in January, proved to be the final nail in Kirkland's political coffin. 'The report urged the creation of labor management committees to boost productivity against foreign competition. But even the Bush-appointed National Labor Relations Board had concluded such committees were illegal if they talked about wages, hours, and working conditions. The 1935 Wagner Act outlawing company unions applied to any organizations dominated by management that intruded into areas reserved for unions.

Congressional Republicans, sensing a good thing, immediately introduced the Team Act which would I amend the labor code to permit wide-ranging employer-dominated committees in the workplace.

The one-party state begins to crack

If the 13-million-member labor federation was a country, it would be among the oldest one-party states in the world. From 1917 until its demise, eight held supreme power in the Soviet Union. During the same period, the American Federation of Labor, and later the AFL-CIO, was led by four people-Samuel Gompers, William Green, George Meany, and Lane Kirkland.

Until January 28, understanding what went on at the top level of the AFL-CIO was. an art akin to that of a Kremlinologist analyzing the relative positions of Soviet leaders atop Lenin's tomb during the annual May Day parade. And even the Washington Post article that first reported unhappiness with Kirkland failed to mention the name of a single international union president. All were afraid to speak on the record.

Slowly they emerged from the woodwork. Gerald McEntee of the million member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) became the spokesperson. John Sweeney of the Service Employees and Richard Trumka,of the Mine Workers became rumored candidates. With the exception of Ron Carey, President of the Teamsters, and Trumka, none of the insurgents are particularly known for their support of union democracy or rank-and-file militancy. Yet, they know that the situation is desperate and something drastic must be done.

Perhaps fearful that the precedent of deposing a lack-luster president might 'spread, most of the dissident leaders had,hoped to convince Kirkland to go peacefully. The group would then install Tom Donahue as a one-term president while a new leader was groomed. Donahue spoiled this neat scenario, May 8, when he suddenly announced his retirement. The next day, Kirkland proclaimed he was running for reelection, setting the stage for the first-ever contested election for AFL-CIO leadership.

Differences remain among the rebels as to how radical the AFL-CIO reform must be. However, John Sweeney, a moderate, who leads one of the most successful unions acknowledges that the labor movement is "irrelevant to the vast majority of unorganized workers." Sweeney calls for building grass-roots political committees, committing third of unions' revenues to organizing and initiating multi-union, industry-wide campaigns to regain labor's strength and size.


Lane Kirkland, the person who has presided over labor's free-fall during the past 15 years does not fit the stereotype of a union leader. Born in 1922, in the small town of Camden, South Carolina, Kirkland went to college instead of into a plant or mill. During World War II, he graduated from an accelerated program at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and went to sea for a few years, ultimately rising to First Mate and earning his entree into the labor movement, membership in the Masters, mates and Pilots union.

After World War II, Kirkland's career took a curious turn. He earned a Bachelor's degree from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 1948. After graduation, some say he went to work for the State Department, others allege that was just a cover for intelligence work. Ultimately Kirkland turned up at AFL-CIO headquarters and quickly became George Meany's administrative assistant. In 1969, he was elevated to the number two position, secretary-treasurer, and nominated by Meany to succeed him as president in 1979.

During the Cold War, unions were enlisted by the CIA and State Department to join the fight against communism. Money and resources were channeled to anti-Communist unions throughout the world, How much came from members' dues and how much was laundered from the CIA won't be known until the AFL-CIO archives are opened someday.

A divorce of the AFL-CIO from the national's foreign policy establishment would be a historic day. What that scene might be like was described in an AFSCME-sponsored union history, Power to the Public Worker, by Richard Billings and John Greenya. The book chronicles Jerry Wurf's rise to power in 1964: "When Wurf first arrived at AFSCME headquarters following the 1964 convention, he noticed the presence of what he describes as 'trench-coat' types. Wurf and others .had heard rumors of an AFSCME relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency, even the possibility that CIA funds had found their way into the effort to reelected Zander (Wurf's opponent)."

It was disclosed later that other unions, including the Newspaper Guild, Communications Workers of America, Retail Clerks (now United Food and Commercial Workers) and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, had also taken CIA money.

Kirkland and the Socal Democrats

Paralleling Kirkland's rise from ship's First Mate to Captain of the labor movement has been the involvement of a shadowy organization called the Social Democrats, USA which has its headquarters in the AFL-CIO building. SDUSA is the most rightwing of three splinters of the old Norman Thomas-led Socialist Party. Public members of the publicity shy organization include the late Bayard: Rustin, longtime head of the AFL-CIO's A. Phillip Randolph Institute and Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers and a staunch supporter of Kirkland. The major tenet of SDUSA and the AFL-CIO's International Affairs Department continues to be anticommunism. This guiding philosophy led both organizations to support the war in Vietnam and aid right-wing dictatorships around the world. Under Kirkland, the AFL-CIO and various unions send money and personnel to intervene around the world on behalf of the U.S. government. Sometimes, union aid is sent directly but mostly it is funneled through Various labor foreign policy groups including the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) for Latin America, the African-American Labor Center, the Asian-American Free Labor Institute and the Free Trade Union Institute, for Europe.

According to AFL-CIO documents, these four organizations have battled the establishment of progressive governments and labor movements or have promoted American interests in Jamaica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, 45 African countries, 30 Asian and Pacific countries, and in several European countries. Kirkland chairs each of these four organizations and chooses the executive directors. The specific activities of the four organizations are buried within the files of the AFL-CIO's (International Affairs Department, headed by Kirkland crony, Charles Gray.

One of the public activities of the International Affairs Department is the publication of a slick quarterly magazine, Forum. The latest issue devotes all 44 pages to a diatribe against unions in eastern Europe, years after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Not a word is mentioned about cross-border solidarity with Mexican workers, NAFTA, GATT, runaway shops, or other issues that directly affect American workers.

One of the proud achievements of the Kirkland administration is the co-creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, which was active in opposing the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The NED was co-sponsored, by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of labor's traditional enemies, the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party.

In its 1985 Executive Council Report, the AFL-CIO shows the possibility of money laundering. It reports that the AIFLD received $7.1 million the previous year for "34 special programs to promote and strengthen democracy in Latin American and the Caribbean." AIFLD got the money from the Free Trade Union Institute, which on another page is described as receiving much of its funding,from the National Endowment for Democracy. Kirkland and the AFL-CIO were years ahead of Oliver North.

In 1993, after the fall of communism, the AFL-CIO was still spending more of its own money, $2,466,000, on international affairs than it spent on education, legislation, or organizing.

Domestic AFL-CIO departments also seem to be focused on political orthodoxy and control. Frontlash, a youth group run out of the federation's headquarters has been instrumental in recruiting "right-thinking" college students and placing them in unions and in state and county branches of the AFL-CIO. One AFL-CIO staff member, who talked on condition that neither he nor his AFL-CIO branch be identified, bragged that his region had never been infiltrated-. "From time to time, they try to get someone in, but we usually spot them before they come on staff. If not, we weed them out real fast."

The intersection of anti-communism and conservatism has drawn strange bedfellows to the top rungs of labor. Malcomb Forbes, Jr., not known for his love of unions, has heaped effusive praise in the pages of his magazine for Kirkland's work on the board that oversees Radio Free Europe. The right-wing magazine, The American Spectator, eulogized Tom Kahn, AFL-CIO International Affairs Director when he died in 1992 for being stronger in his support for Lech Walesa than the Reagan administration. The magazine reminisced about his 1980 speech to an SDUSA gathering in which he predicted, "the destruction of Communism was in reach if only the democratic world approached the challenge with firmness."

The White Male Club

If some leaders of the top unions and the AFL-CIO are united by ideology, nearly all are united by ,race, gender,. and age. While many unions seek to develop African-American, Latino, and Asian organizers, it's a different story at the decision-making levels of labor. When asked recently how affirmative action can be extended to the top levels of labor, Kirkland responded that it's up to the affiliates (unions) to make the change. However, even unions that represent large numbers of people of color, such as those in the garment, hotel, and other low wage industries, are led by white males.

Affirmative action works well for white males, particularly those with family connections. Arthur Coia, one of the insurgents against Kirkland, and his father have both occupied the office of president of the Laborers Union. Gerald McEntee, AFSCME President and spokesperson for the anti-Kirkland committee is the son of William McEntee who headed the powerful Philadelphia AFSCME Council. The elder McEntee was an old-guard candidate against Jerry Wurf"s insurgent team. Wurf, himself, slowly changed from a young rebel into an old white male who died in office. After Wurf's death, McEntee beat out Secretary-Treasurer William Lucy, who would have been the first African-American president of a major union.

It's hardly a secret in the Service Employees,union that John Sweeney wants to replace Kirkland. Sweeney is seen by opponents in his union as another over-paid, autocratic, white male president. Sweeney supporters, however, point to renewed militancy and organizing activity under his presidency. SEIU is one of the few unions to commit substantial funds to organizing the unorganized (the Mine Workers is another). The 30 percent of SEIU's budget that is spent for organizing has been winning results. For instance, the industry-wide Justice for Janitors campaign has raised their unionization rate in the Los Angeles area from 15 to 70 percent of the workforce.

Richard Trumka, another likely candidate for either Kirkland's or Donahue's job, is a white male union president, but at 45 is considerably younger that his colleagues. Under Trumka's leadership, the revived United Mine Workers have undertaken and won major strikes. Trumka, a miner from a family of miners, went to law school before defeating the corrupt Tony Boyle machine that controlled the union. Boyle went to jail for the murder of union reformer Jock Yablonsky. A favorite with the rank-and-file, Trumka easily won the Labor Notes straw ballot for AFL-CIO president.

The irrepressible miners union

Perhaps because of the dangerous nature of their work, the Mine Workers have always displayed a militancy not found in many other AFL-CIO unions. Miner's have upset more than one carefully built union, apple cart.

There was one AFL president that no one talks about. John McBride, a United Mine Workers president, unseated the AFL icon, Samuel Gompers in Nov. 1893. The Pullman Railway strike, led by Eugene Debs, had just been lost and many accused Gompers of sabotaging it. The Socialist Party was growing rapidly and Gompers was anti-Socialist. A Populist movement was sweeping the Midwest. Gompers was against it. John McBride, like Richard Trumka, was president of the United Mine Workers. Gompers made a comeback the following year and never again was an incumbent AFL or AFL-CIO president in danger of winning reelection.

Yet another Mine Workers president, John L. Lewis, punched an old-guard AFL leader J.C. Hutcheson of the Carpenters in the nose during the 1935 AFL convention in Atlantic City. Lewis's physical and symbolic blow started a chain of events that resulted in the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO, in turn, organized the mass production industries and brought organized labor to its pinnacle of power and prestige in the late 1930s and 1940s.

The Mine Workers, under Trumka's leadership, have pioneered a rediscovered tactic for the labor movement-civil disobedience. Members from a growing number of unions have begun sitting down in busy intersections, hotel lobbies and government buildings to cause mass arrests. "CD" is even on the new curriculum of the AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute.

As labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan pointed out in his book, Which Side Are You On: Trying To Be For Labor When It's Flat On Its Back, almost all of the tactics used by labor during the great upsurge of the 1930s, including sit-ins, mass picketing, secondary boycotts and strikes over grievances, are now illegal. It's also illegal to engage in civil disobedience, such as blocking traffic, but the penalty, in most cases, is a slap on the hand. CD can be viewed as an attempt to find a tactic that won't nail the union on serious legal charges or big fines. It's also a cry for media attention from a movement that needs public support.

Steve Lerner, the architect of SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign, says labor must recognize that it's now in "a life and death struggle with the very corporations, politicians and government with whom we've spent a lifetime building relationships and trying to get along." Civil disobedience and non-violent direct action are two tactics labor must embrace, says Lerner. Militant actions, "show that the labor movement is worth fighting for and it stands for values and beliefs that are so important that they are worth going to jail for," continues Lerner. He calls for organizing 1 percent o labor's members into an army of activists ready to risk arrest.

That the AFL-CIO should lead any struggle is contrary to the long cherished beliefs of Lane Kirkland and his predecessor, George Meany. The CIO grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s by coordinating organizing drives for entire industries. When Walter Reuther, president of the CIO, and George Meany, president of the AFL, brought the two organizations together in 1955, the AFL won the battle of style and substance. Meany scoffed at Reuther's organizing initiatives: "He was always urging a big organizing drive ... there was never much of a follow-through on it," said the former plumber who bragged he never walked a picket line. Kirkland, like his mentor, would rather leave organizing and coordinated bargaining to the 83 national and international unions that belong to his federation.

Disaster upon disaster

Lane Kirkland was recommended to George Meany back in the 1950s, says a Maritime union official, as someone who knew his way around Congress. Instead of remaining his asset, Congress has now become an albatross around Kirkland's neck. Not only has he failed to win any labor law reform during his 15-year tenure, but he almost gave the store away in 1992. Union members learned through newspaper stories on June 11 that Kirkland had offered to limit unions' right to strike in exchange for restricting the use of permanent replacements. Not only was it the first time in history that labor had voluntarily offered to limit the right to strike, but it came out of the blue and was quickly rejected by Congressional Republicans.

Kirkland's forgive-and-forget attitude toward Democrats who voted for NAFTA also angered union members who, a short-time earlier, had been told that thousands of jobs were at stake in the free-trade vote. After being shown such generosity by Kirkland, pro-labor Democrats voted in droves for GATT, in spite of the AFL-CIO's opposition.

The continual drubbing labor receives from Democrats has not moved Kirkland to question the AFL-CIO's link with them. Although several international unions have officially embraced Labor Party Advocates, which is campaigning for the creation of a working-class based political party, Kirkland sees no need for creating a labor party.

"I can only tell you that we do have a Labor Party. It's called COPE. It's the Committee on Political Education. It functions independently of parties and is for all practical purposes a labor party," Kirkland told reporters last February. That COPE runs no, candidates of its own and is repeatedly trapped into supporting moderate or conservative Democrats as the lesser of two evils seems to be beside the point.

Labor's political course will be hotly debated even if Kirkland is driven from office in October. Of the insurgents-Trumka, Ron Carey of the Teamsters, and Bob Wages of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers-support Labor Party Advocates, while McEntee, Sweeney, and other international presidents remain firmly committed to the Democrats.

Even if the most militant of Kirkland's opponents take charge of the AFL-CIO, they will still face a daunting task of giving unions and workers some power in the global' economy. The technological changes that have been called the second industrial revolution are changing the nature of work, dismantling factories and moving whole industries around the world faster than unions can organize workers, even under the best conditions.

The rebel alliance

In labor's upsurge in the 1930s, the CIO made a tactical alliance with the Communists to fight this country's capitalists. During the social compact, Meany and Kirkland made a strategic alliance with capitalists to fight communism, I at home and abroad. To win workers' rights in the new global economy, the AFL-CIO will have to align with workers, of all political hues, throughout the world to fight capitalists, regardless of whether they are headquartered in Tokyo, London or New York.

Some unions, like the Teamsters and United Electrical Workers, are sending help and organizers to Mexico to defend their unions. Cross-border organizing drives and coordinated bargaining led by a revived AFL-CIO may be the only way to keep U.S. workers' wages from sinking to third world levels.

In spite of Kirkland's slow uptake, the Cold War is over. A monolithic Soviet Bloc no longer blocks access to any markets. Regional and national capital is free to roam the world in search of the highest rate of profit. Only a ragtag band of labor unions, divided by craft, industry and country stands in the way of complete and total domination over the workplace by transnational corporations.

This article, without the subheads, appeared in Z Magazine, July/August 1995 issue.