AFL-CIO leaders, battered by a string of legislative defeats and organizing reversals, counterattacked yesterday with the charge that corporate and conservative forces are out to kill the union movement.
Their forum was a two-day conference called by the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department on what union leaders see as a largely ignored resurgence on the right threatening democratic institutions and even the free enterprise system.
Instead of the customary pre-labor Day round of self-congratulatory rhetoric from the nation's union chiefs, there came on outpouring of dire, warnings that the very survival of the labor movement may be at stake unless union's respond more effectively than they have in the past.
"Don't moan and wail . . . fight back on all fronts . . . at the collective bargaining table . . . on the picket line . . . in the legislative halls . . . at the ballot box," said Al Barkan, director of the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education.
"We're doing a bad job compared to industry now," he added, noting that all the warnings so far about the right-wing resurgence have fallen on deaf ears, from the union hall to the White House.
Things got so out of hand in Buffalo, N.Y., recently that some union leaders endorsed Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), a favorite of the conservatives, in exchange of some free football tickets, said Brakan.
"Now Kemp never voted for labor, not even by mistake," thundered Barkan, warming up to his subject by describing the New York congressman as a "double-plated, three-coated, four-faced, five-ply phony of the worst kind."
Moreover, he said, when the National Association of Manufacturers recently set up a "Council on Union-Free Environment," he expected some expression of concern from Congress and the White House. "All I heard was a loud silence," added Barkan. "That's how much we can depend on our so-called friends."
Threaded through the speech-making was an acknowledgement of organized labor's recent reversals, including scuttling of the labor law revision bill and other labor-backed legislation as well as a declinging rate of uation as well as a declining rate of rising rate of decertification votes.
Barkan also noted a recent opinion survey that showed labor leaders ranking next to the bottom in public esteem. "Thank God for the politicians," who ranked last, said Barkan.
The setbacks were blamed on a combination of shrewd public relations, "union-busting" tactics that have "replaced Pinkertons with lawyers," corporate bankrolling of anti-union efforts and a "missionary zeal" on the part of right-wing leaders that is not matched from the left.
The goal, said Union Steelworkers of American President Lloyd McBride, is "to eliminate the labor movement from American society."
But McBride and others portrayed the threat in broader and more apocalyptic terms.
Removal of the "checks and balances" afforded by a strong labor movement "could produce the same conditions that were largely responsible for the Great Depression," said McBride, and threaten the free enterprise system itself.
"Like its spiritual predecessors in Hilter's Germany, Mussolini's Italy and Franco's Spain, this army of the radical right has nothing but contempt for democracy and democratic institutions," said William W. Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists.
Winpisinger did not define what constitutes this "army" but said it opposes health and safety regulations for workers, equal rights for women and minorities, national health insurance, welfare programs and greater tax equity. "I can convinced the only way organized labor can repel the armies of right-wing radicalism is by fighting for total redistribution of this nation's income and wealth," said Winpisinger.
Jacob Clayman, head of the 6-million-member Industrial Union Department, also raised the specter of Nazi Germany and said, "We must stop the radical right before it has the slightest chance of a lasting impact on our national institutions."