In the 30 years since the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged to form the AFL-CIO, it is doubtful that the American union movement has faced a tougher challenge than it does today. It is lucky for labor -- and for America -- that a man such as Lane Kirkland leads the federation as it holds its convention here this week.
The heroes we celebrate are the players, coaches, managers and generals who win. We don't usually give awards to people who play weak hands with skill and boldness, or to leaders who manage to keep their cause alive in tough times and even strengthen it to fight another day. Kirkland is such a man.
No one doubts these are tough times for labor. Unions represent a diminishing share of the work force. Persistent high unemployment makes it hard to bargain for improvements in contracts or to organize new workers. While Secretary of Labor Bill Brock has restored communication and civility after five years of the Big Chill, the Reagan administration's policies clearly tilt against the unions. And after labor's candidate for president got shellacked in 1984, even some of its old Democratic allies such as Ted Kennedy are putting distance between themselves and the union leaders.
In the face of these adversities, Kirkland said in a pre-convention interview that he and his associates remain "realistic but undaunted. This is really a stimulating time to be working this territory. There's almost an eagerness to try new things."
That sounds like the typical Monday-morning "test of character" speech from the football coach whose team has just taken a terrible beating. But the moves Kirkland is making this week offer solid evidence that organized labor -- historically one of the most inflexible of institutions -- is trying to step up to the challenge.
The groundwork was laid in a startlingly realistic report called "The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions," spearheaded by Kirkland's secretary-treasurer, Thomas R. Donahue, and approved last February by the AFL-CIO executive council. The report said that "unions find themselves behind the pace of change" and lagging in ways to meet the altered expectations of workers in contemporary offices and factories.
In the past six months, Kirkland and Donahue have been discussing the report and its implications with state and local leaders in some 50 cities. This week, they are ready to showcase the first three specific programs to carry out the thrust of the report.
The most important in its potential is the authorization for affiliated unions to offer "associate memberships" to individual workers not covered by collective-bargaining agreements. The bait for these memberships will be a package of benefits: supplemental life insurance, low-cost group auto and household insurance, legal services, perhaps even a no-fee, low-interest credit card and an attractive Individual Retirement Account plan. These are designed to appeal as much to middle- class as low-wage workers.
The AFL-CIO is assembling the package, but the associate memberships will be offered by individual unions. It gives them a way of maintaining contact with workers who take the risk of signing up for organizing drives that fail to achieve majority support. "In the past," Kirkland said, "we've put those people on the line, and then it's 'Goodbye, Charlie.' This way, we can offer them something real, instead of leaving them exposed and embittered."
"It also lets us experiment in nonconfrontational organizing," Kirkland said -- an important factor in a time when many nonunion workers fear that unions bring strife and threaten job security. "We can come into a factory or office and say we're not even looking for a contract; we're just a service organization. Eventually, those people may ask or even demand that we take on a representation role."
The other two innovations are less dramatic but could strengthen internal union organization. In Georgia, Idaho and Missouri, the AFL- CIO will concentrate staff members to train local union activists in an experimental "one- on-one" outreach program of home visits to the many unionists who rarely show up at meeting halls. The purpose, Kirkland said, "is to find out what they want from their job and show them how they can use the union to help achieve individual goals."
Finally, the federation will start down the road this week toward requiring its member unions (barely half of whom are dues-paying affiliates of state labor federations) to support the state units. These units increasingly will carry the burden of both organizing and political action.
The payoff on these projects may not be visible for some time. But they are important -- as important as a healthy labor movement is to the overall vigor and well-being of this democracy.