LANE KIRKLAND

Champion of American Labor

By Arch Puddington

Wiley. 342 pp. $30

LABOR EMBATTLED

History, Power, Rights

By David Brody

Univ. of Illinois. 166 pp. Paperback, $20

It was late at night, in the middle of a hard-fought union campaign, when a friend confessed that he wondered if he had "made the right choice." He had just quit graduate school to become a labor organizer and was having second thoughts about his decision. I asked him if he was worried about the long hours, the political frustrations or the frequent travel.

"No," he said bluntly. "I'm worried that there won't be a labor movement in 30 years."

As shown by last month's dramatic split within the AFL-CIO, this is a fear shared by many within American labor: not that unions are on the decline -- that's old news -- but that, in the not-too-distant future, they may simply cease to exist. Already, union membership in the private sector has fallen to 8 percent, about what it was 100 years ago, in the last heyday of laissez-faire capitalism. Even as the nation debates the future of Social Security, that great symbol of the New Deal, few politicians have noted that when it comes to American labor, the accomplishments of the New Deal have already been lost.

The man who presided over much of this decline was Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO from 1979 to 1995 (he died in 1999). When Kirkland took office, approximately 23 percent of American workers belonged to unions. By the time he left a decade and a half later, that number had dipped to about 15 percent, according to Columbia historian Eric Foner.

You will not find these numbers on prominent display in Arch Puddington's admiring new biography, "Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor." Though it purports to be "the first work to trace the lifelong journey of this champion for the American workers," it spends surprisingly little time actually discussing American workers. Instead, the book focuses on Kirkland's wheeling and dealing among the Washington elite: his presidential meetings, his crusade to defeat global communism, the inside baseball of the AFL-CIO.

This is appropriate enough, given Kirkland's life. Despite almost 50 years in the labor movement, Kirkland never worked as an on-the-ground organizer; his career in labor began and ended in the labor movement's Washington offices, with only a brief stint at a trade union. And it is true, as Puddington writes, that Kirkland was not solely responsible for labor's losses; globalization and Reaganomics presented a truly formidable set of opponents. But in the end, reading "Lane Kirkland" is like reading a biography of Herbert Hoover that glosses over the Great Depression: Certainly he was a victim of bad timing, but it seems strained to consider his tenure in office, as Puddington evidently does, a rousing success.

Puddington's goal is less to analyze his subject's life than to rehabilitate Kirkland as a model Cold War liberal, able to balance sympathy for American labor with passionate anti-communism. This approach reflects Puddington's own political sympathies as an author and as vice president for research at the nonpartisan Freedom House, which proudly opposes both the far left and the far right. Kirkland's record, unfortunately, does not quite live up to the task Puddington has set out for him. For instance, Puddington cites the 1979 National Accord, a plan for "industrial revitalization" negotiated with President Jimmy Carter, as "one of Kirkland's proudest achievements." But, as Puddington notes, the accord never went into effect, thanks to Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency. Puddington also applauds Kirkland's early support for Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement. But does Kirkland really deserve credit for the fall of communism in Poland and not for the decline of American labor?

When not straining to restore Kirkland's reputation, Puddington offers a bittersweet portrait of a liberal Democrat utterly at odds with his times. Kirkland had little patience for the free-market, anti-government rhetoric that became a hallmark of '80s conservatism.

"I remember the days when the county poorhouse was the sure destination of destitute senior citizens," he told the New York Times in 1981, "the good old days before government got on our backs with Social Security." Perhaps to the detriment of the labor movement, he also had little patience for the press, which he saw as misinformed and hostile to unions.

"My problem with journalists is much the same as my problem with academics," he told a colleague. "By dint of their profession, they are forced to ask questions to which any intelligent person would respond: 'I don't know.' "

David Brody's new "Labor Embattled" is just the sort of book that Kirkland would have disliked. One of the deans of American labor history (a professor emeritus at the University of California at Davis), Brody asks difficult questions about American labor; even worse, he thinks he knows the answer.

"I make no bones about it," he writes. "I am trying to tell the labor movement what to do."

Brody begins with the assumption (one that Kirkland would have shared) that trade unions are not a special interest but "the single most important agent for social justice in our political system." In this context, falling membership threatens far more than the AFL-CIO bureaucracy; as goes labor, Brody argues, so goes Social Security, affordable health insurance and the rest of the social safety net.

Though aimed at labor historians and movement insiders, Brody's claims deserve a wide hearing in current political circles, where labor's crisis has been so often ignored. For instance, he offers a scathing condemnation of the National Labor Relations Board, whose unwillingness to stop employers from intimidating and even firing union supporters, he argues, has effectively deprived Americans of their right to organize.

Not all of Brody's analysis is so grim. He reminds us that in the early 1930s, many intelligent Americans were ready to consign American labor to oblivion. A few years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act into law, ushering in the greatest period of union growth in the nation's history. In our own era of free-market orthodoxy, a transformation on this scale may seem unimaginable. But to anyone who believes, like David Brody and Lane Kirkland, that a healthy labor movement is crucial to American democracy, the alternative -- a nation without unions -- is unthinkable.