Battered by economic change and political defeat, about 1,000 top union officials gather here Monday for the 30th anniversary convention of the AFL-CIO, which is unveiling several new tactics -- including a new type of union membership with financial benefits -- designed to lure converts to the cause.
Almost like a trade association, the AFL-CIO is showing off its new wares in a plush hotel near Disneyland.
These new products range from videotapes and television ads to glossy brochures touting novel union-organizing techniques and multimillion-dollar pension fund investments intended to promote the use of union labor.
Underlying these new approaches is the growing realization among many leaders of the 13 million-member federation of 96 unions that they must change their ways in dealing with workers who may be hostile, indifferent, or fearful of unions.
"If the ways of the past are not working, you try to find new ways," said John J. Sweeney, president of the 700,000-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) which, unlike most unions, is growing rapidly, at a pace of 50,000 new members a year.
"We are beginning to move in directions we never thought of before," said Owen F. Bieber, president of the United Auto Work- ers.
The UAW has lost more than 250,000 members in recent years, but has recently won organizing drives among clerical workers at Columbia, Cornell and other uni- versities in an effort to broaden its base.
The major new AFL-CIO program is the creation of "associate" union memberships that would provide benefits such as low-cost group life- and auto insurance, legal services, a discount union MasterCard, and other inducements to attract nonunion workers.
For a nominal fee, nonunion workers would become associate members receiving union-sponsored benefits and publications, although they might not be eligible to join a union because their workplace remains nonunion.
The associate membership plan was a key recommendation in the AFL-CIO's February blueprint for the future called "The Changing Situation of Workers and their Unions." The plan is modeled after similar programs run by the American Association of Retired Persons, the National Education Association, and others which use financial benefits to attract and maintain members.
It was prompted by a survey conducted for the AFL-CIO in 1984, which estimated that more than 25 million former union members dropped out because they changed jobs or became victims of plant closings and layoffs. Many are willing to rejoin but have no opportunity, the AFL-CIO survey said.
In addition, the survey found, many workers vote to join a union during representation elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, but never get to join one because unions lose about 55 percent of those elections.
"We are looking for ways to have workers be part of the labor movement even if they are not ready yet for full membership," said Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
McEntee and Sweeney of SEIU said they have already used an "association" technique to successfully recruit office workers who are concerned about work issues but do not have a majority of their fellow workers ready to vote union.
But a number of unions, particularly those in the building trades and manufacturing, do not plan to use the new membership because they believe it undermines traditional unionism, according to AFL-CIO sources.
"The guy who already pays his union dues may resent it and say, 'Why not get a $5 membership instead of the $12 dues I'm paying now,' " a federation staff member said. "And the building tradesman at the hiring hall is afraid some new guy will walk in with an AFL-CIO membership card and want priority in hiring."
The labor federation hired Peter Hart Associates, which polled workers and found considerable interest in the associate plan, which would be voluntary for each union. The federation said it has discussed a plan with MasterCard representatives to offer a no-fee union card with reduced interest rates for workers who often are unable to get credit cards because of their low income.
Among other programs, federation officials are touting their effort to conduct their largest multiunion organizing campaign, aimed at Blue Cross-Blue Shield, which is unionized in only a few states but is dependent on much union-generated business.
Many of these new efforts drives are portrayed in productions by the AFL-CIO's video arm, the Labor Institute of for Public Affairs (LIPA) which is also beaming convention highlights of this week's convention by satellite to hundreds of television stations.