Robert Bonitati, President Reagan's special assistant for labor relations, was incorrectly identified in yesterday's editions of The Washington Post as the former president of the Air Line Pilots Association. He was the union's legislative director.
Lane Kirkland won one big gamble yesterday and now finds himself riding a much bigger bet--a bet that could politically bankrupt or massively benefit the American labor movement in the years ahead.
In the face of rampant skepticism inside and outside the union leadership about the timing and tactic of calling for a mass protest march against the economic policies of a popular president, Kirkland saw yesterday's Solidarity Day turnout here of more than 250,000 vindicate his judgment as nothing else has in his two years as president of the AFL-CIO.
With a single, dramatic step he put the often-scorned labor movement, and himself as its head, out front of what might become the most powerful grass-roots progressive coalition since the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war days.
But if the central proposition of yesterday's protest--that Reaganomics is News Analysis News Analysis socially, morally and politically bankrupt--is ultimately judged false by blue-collar families and other Americans, then Kirkland could also be leading organized labor right over the cliff. He has left virtually no room for rapprochement with the ruling Republicans.
What was implicit in the rhetoric of the Solidarity Day speeches, and even clearer in the off-stage comments of the organizers, was that this mass rally was the opening gun in a planned political offensive.
Its purpose is not to persuade onetime union president Ronald Reagan to modify his policies in a way that will make them more acceptable to organized labor. No one thinks that is likely. The purpose is to thwart those policies in Congress by stiffening the spines of wobbly Democrats and scaring some shaky Republicans into reconsidering their robot-like support of Reagan's programs.
As William Wynn, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, said, "We're not going to get much from the White House, but, hopefully, we're going to put some starch in some of our friends in Congress who have wavered a bit."
Beyond that, the purpose is to drive Ronald Reagan and his kind from power in 1984 by reviving the old Democratic coalition behind a candidate picked, in the first instance, by Kirkland and his labor colleagues. While there are many potential conflicts to be resolved, the participation in yesterday's rally by many civil rights and women's groups gave at least symbolic life to that coalition hope.
The White House recognized Solidarity Day for what it was, the first and biggest rally of the 1982 and 1984 campaigns. "They see us as the enemy," said Robert Bonitati, the former head of the Air Line Pilots Association and now Reagan's special assistant for labor relations. "After all, we are Republicans."
But at the presidential level, the tactic was to downplay the conflict. In a statement approved by Reagan from Camp David, where he was spending the weekend, White House spokesman David Gergen said the president "recognizes and appreciates" the frustration of working people enduring a sluggish economy, persistent inflation and high interest rates and being asked to swallow economic medicine that is "hardly sweet."
But the president reiterated his faith in his economic program and said that "as we progress, more and more working people will see they have a friend in the White House."
Gergen himself reinforced the conciliatory tone by pointing out the "many areas of agreement" between the administration and labor, including support of growth policies against "environmental extremists" and backing for a strong defense.
But others in the administration took a much sharper line against what they termed a "partisan" assault by labor and its allies. In Denver, Vice President Bush said "a lot of rank-and-file members of the labor unions feel uncomfortable with that position that has been taken by their leadership."
And Secretary of Labor Raymond J. Donovan, a particular target of many of the union leaders, said in a statement issued by his department: "This administration wants to work. . . closely with the leaders of organized labor. But we can't do that when they put on their partisan political hat and set out to oppose our programs indiscriminately."
Privately, some officials were angry enough to wish that someone would fire back even harder. In a Sept. 14 memo that departmental spokesmen said represented only his personal views, Baker A. Smith, labor relations assistant to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel R. Pierce Jr., said Solidarity Day should be labeled for what it is: part of "the union scheme to destabilize the Reagan administration by direct political action through illegal federal union strikes, stoppages and slowdowns."
Smith urged counterleafletting of the Solidarity marchers by HUD employes, a tactic departmental officials said they rejected.
Bonitati and other White House officials said that, from their perspective, it was Kirkland and the other union leaders from labor's left wing, like Jerry Wurf, William Winpisinger and Douglas Fraser, who were out of step with the times. "A lot of labor leaders really aren't saying anything about Solidarity Day," Bonitati said, "because they don't think it's the right strategy to just keep fighting the administration on everything."
Backing that belief is Reagan's record of having won big chunks of the blue-collar and union vote in 1980, when most of the union organizations were working actively for Jimmy Carter. What Reagan did before, he can do again, administration officials believe: appeal directly to workers and their families over the heads of the union leaders.
Yet it was Reagan who contributed as much as anyone outside the AFL-CIO building to the success of Solidarity Day--by focusing public attention, apprehension and even some anger on his own economic program in the days leading up to yesterday's protest.
"We couldn't have orchestrated it better if we had been writing the script ourselves," said Victor Kamber, a publicist for many of the participating unions.
It was an open secret that Kirkland had to put his own prestige on the line to persuade the AFL-CIO executive council to endorse Solidarity Day. As recently as a week ago, many of the participating union presidents were expressing private misgivings about the timing of the event.
Either it should have been held earlier in the summer, before the key votes in Congress on the Reagan tax and budget cuts, or it should have been held later in the year, when the impact of those social service reductions is really felt in local communities, they argued.
But Reagan and Wall Street made Kirkland's timing seem a stroke of genius. The financial markets tumbled all week to a 1980-81 low, signaling a fear that high interest rates may foretell a severe recession. And each day, Reagan or Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman was on the news announcing some new and politically sensitive cutback, including a deferral of Social Security increases that set off protests not just from Democrats but from Republicans on Capitol Hill as well.
That enabled Kirkland to brag, in his rally speech, that labor, which was almost alone in challenging the Reagan economic program head-on last spring, "was right then and we are right today . . . . We are out front and we shall not fall back to hide and wait for better political weather."
Yesterday's mass demonstration was Kirkland's declaration of independence from the political strategies of his legendary predecessor, George Meany, who sought close relations with presidents of both parties and generally backed candidates, rather than a political party. Meany in all his years as AFL-CIO president never used mass protest rallies as a tactic and kept at arm's length from the major civil rights and anti-war marches.
Kirkland in the past nine months has forged a close alliance with the Democratic Party, making unions the principal financial mainstay of the party and claiming a major voice in its policy councils. He has started to put machinery in place for the union movement to deliver a pre-primary endorsement to a favored candidate for the 1984 presidential nomination, presumably former vice president Mondale or Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)
Mondale talked to a Solidarity Day rally in San Francisco and told Reagan, "You had better listen to working people in this country." Kennedy greeted marchers here, where no elected officials were on the speaking program.
Despite the success of yesterday's rally, Kirkland faces a serious internal debate about his desire to forge a clear working alliance with the Democrats. A major union leader, who declined to be quoted by name, said in an interview on the Mall that "we need help--and we're getting help--from Republican senators" on the current fight to save the Davis-Bacon Act, which protects union wage rates on government construction jobs. "I'm not for kicking an ally in the teeth just because he's a Republican."
But most of the union leaders agree at least for now with United Mine Workers President Sam Church, who said, "We're not picking a fight with the administration. They're picking on us and we have to protect our members."
The 1982 and 1984 elections will give Reagan and the Republicans a chance to prove that their policies, not union protests, really protect the workers' interests. But after yesterday's turnout, it is Reagan, not Kirkland, who carries the burden of proof.