In bitter and caustic language, the leadership of the AFL-CIO opened its most serious public breach with the Carter administration yesterday, charging that the President had failed to keep his promised to the "working people."
Lane Kirkland, secretary-treasurer and second only to President George Meany in the labor federation hierarchy, said that "recent signs and portents lead us to wonder if our [campaign] support was not just other triumph of hope over experience." He spoke at a union conference on trade and jobs.
It was the AFL-CIO's most serious public breach with the new Democratic administration.
The immediate cause of Kirkland's attack on Carter Programs and policies was last week's decision by the President to reject a recommendation by the International Trade Commission for a sharp boost in tariffs on foreign shoes.
To dramatize labor's concern over the plight of domestic shoe workers, two leading clothing workers unions they would conduct a nationwide strike on April 13.
"We take this position because we can see ourselves in the same position as workers in the shoe industry, if we don't stand up and fight now," said Jacob Sheinkman, secretary-treasurer of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. The clothing workers will be joined by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in the symbolic stoppage.
But Carter's essentially free-trade decision on shoes was merely the final item in Kirkland's litany of complaints.
He cited what he called "the disproportionate representation of big business' in the Cabinet, "masked" by a search for minority representatives which he said had produced little result.
"The process reminds us again that, in national and world affairs - whether the winds blow left or right, cold war or detente, Republican or Democratic - big business adapts and comes to winning terms," Kirkland said.
"When the Republicans are in, business wins because it owns the party. When the Democrats are in, business wins because it extracts the price of business confidence."
Once the Cabinet was selected, Kirkland said, it produced an inadequate stimulus package that means "there ain't gonna be no full employment here for the next four years."
"Next came the great minimum wage retreat," he told the union audience. The Carter administration proposed an increase from $2.30 to $2.50 an hour, instead of the $3 urged by labor, and annual increases equivalent to 50 per cent of the average industrial wage instead of the 60 per cent that labor wanted.
That amounts, Kirkland said, "to a formula for happiness among the Chambers of Commerce of the Sun Belt. The message is simple and clear: inflation is to be fought at the expense of its primary victims, and the poor will always be with us."
Kirkland, along with I. W. Abel, president of the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department that sponsored the conference, argued that the stage is being set for "a rising tide of imports of the products of cheap exploited labor" over the next four years.
He charged that a campaign had been organized "to divide workers and consumers" by those who claimed that the tariffs on shoes recommended by the trade commission would hit hardest at low-income Americans.
"A word needs to be said on the emerging principle of consumer sovereignty as it affects trade issues - that is, the proposition that the consumer has an inalienable, top-priority rich: to $4 Korean shoes, regardless of the conditions under which they are made, the human, social and economic cost of lost American jobs, and of who really gets the $4. This principle is mostly expounded by those who get their shoes at Gucci," Kirkland declared.
He said he was passimistic about "a fair resolution" of these issues.
Sheinkman said President Carter had "played a cruel joke" on 170,000 American shoe workers by promising only to work out voluntary agreements that would limit imports, and he attacked the President's general support of free trade.
Sheinkman said the administration, despite pleas by the textile unions, is seeking renewal for another year of the Multifiber Arrangement (MFA) negotiated under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), even though the country is being flooded by imports under the existing terms. Sheinkman charged that the jobs of 3 million textile workers would be threatened if the MFA is renewed in its present form.