AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland has literally taken to the streets of Washington in an apparent effort to move himself from the shadow of George Meany and re-establish labor as a force in national politics.
In recent weeks, the federation chief has not missed a chance to speak at union demonstrations protesting various White House budget cuts. First there was the United Mine Workers rally protesting cuts in the black-lung-benefit program, next came the rail union demonstrations against the proposed spending cuts for Conrail and then there was the textile workers' rally against plans to cut the budget for brown-lung benefits.
This week, however, Kirkland is trying to work out the details of what some labor officials hope will be the biggest protest demonstration here since the 1963 civil rights march on Washington. Kirkland's plan, which he planned to discuss with the federation's executive council at its quarterly meeting this week in Baltimore, is for a massive Labor Day rally to establish "labor's presence."
Union officials insist, however, that Kirkland "will not try to pull it off unless it would be massive. But it's important to Lane to make a move. This is a chance to move out of George Meany's shadow."
Federation sources claim the idea of a massive demonstration first came to Kirland when he addressed the mine workers protest rally -- the first major union demonstration against the Reagan budget cuts. And now that he has addressed the other protest rallies, "He's enjoying it," a union official said.
But as much as he seems to like the protest idea, Kirkland also seems somewhat unsure how to go about it. So far, the Labor Day rally has been discussed publicly in the context of the AFL's centennial celebration. Union officials are careful to avoid public talk of demonstrations.
Privately, key labor officials are casting the planning process in terms of a massive protest against Reagan economic policy -- a rallying point for other groups as well as labor opposing the White House program.
Despite all the brave talk, however, there is little consensus within the labor movement about tactics.Like most other groups opposing the Reagan economic program, labor basically has been held at bay by the general conservative mood of the nation and the Congress.
The extent of the conservative impact on labor was driven home to Kirkland last February after the annual midwinter meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council in Florida. Federation leaders issued a statement denouncing the Reagan economic program. The president immediately discounted labor's position, insisting publicly that the labor leaders were simply out of touch with their members.
Shortly after the president made his statement, AFL-CIO officials acknowledged that Kirkland received "a lot of mail" from union members pointing out to the federation leader that indeed they had voted for Reagan and they wanted Kirkland to know it.
"Lane was clearly stung by the Reagan remarks," a federation official said. And ever since then he moved with caution in his attacks on the Reagan program.
One consequence of this caution has been the AFL-CIO's refusal to accept the president's invitation to come up with a better plan of its own if it didn't like the White House program.
Therefore, Kirkland and top federation leaders seem to be putting much of their hopes in some form of massive rally or demonstration on Labor Day that will re-establish organized labor as a political force to rally opposition to Reaganomics. And if it works, it certainly won't hurt Kirkland's image inside the labor movement.