AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland marked the 30th anniversary of the labor federation today with a scathing attack on "enemies of labor," including President Reagan, the "bastards" at the National Labor Relations Board, and some Democratic politicians who he said are being "intimidated" into taking more conservative positions.
In a combative speech to 1,000 top union officials at the AFL-CIO convention, Kirkland also strongly attacked sectors of the business community for using illegal tactics to fight unions and for deserting domestic operations for higher profits overseas.
Reagan's economic policies have led to record-high trade and budget deficits, Kirkland said, which "are the creation and ultimate legacy of Ronald Reagan, as a poison pill in the body politic."
"For the first time, we have a young generation of Americans who do not expect to do as well as their parents," he said, "Their opportunities are shrinking, and so are their hopes.
"The steady erosion of America's industrial base is depriving millions of young workers of those stable, well-paying jobs that broadly sustain the American standard of living, and offer admission to the working middle-class. Trapped in low-paying service jobs, they see the American dream fading fast."
Critics have frequently predicted the demise of the labor movement since the American Federation of Labor was founded in 1886 and merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955, Kirkland said.
"Despite what our detractors may say, we have not been idle, complacent or resistant to change and innovation," Kirkland said, predicting that unions would begin a successful round of new union-organizing.
"We are going to do it in spite of the barriers and hurdles raised by the current national labor relations laws" and the Reagan-appointed NLRB, whose decisions, he said, have made it easier for employers to void union contracts, fire union employes and take other antiunion actions.
"The trade union movement of America was not created by the National Labor Relations Board, and this yellow-dog board cannot stop the union movement. We are going to outlast the bastards, and sign up their undertakers on our way forward into the future," he said. ("Yellow-dog" is an old union term for employment contracts, now illegal, that prohibited workers in advance from joining a union.) NLRB officials today declined comment on the Kirkland speech.
Kirkland said some businesses, aided by "a new parasitical army of polished professional union-busters" are fighting unions with illegal tactics. Such actions, he said, are "proving, once again, that the phrase 'business ethics,' like 'military intelligence,' is a contradiction in terms."
Kirkland said that unions were more committed than ever to political action to reverse recent trends, including the tendency of some Democrats to go along with Republican deficit-cutting plans such as the Gramm-Rudman amendment, which Kirkland said would cause devastating domestic budget cuts.
Several union leaders here have been privately critical of their traditional Democratic allies, particularly Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), for their recent support of Gramm-Rudman. Kirkland did not cite Kennedy by name, but said that the deficit-cutting drive has served to "cow and intimidate all progressive instincts" in some potential political candidates.
"Certainly we want to keep faith with our political tradition of supporting the friends and opposing the enemies of labor. But it is getting harder and harder to tell them apart," Kirkland said.
In summing up the 30-year history of the merged AFL and CIO, Kirkland said that unions have made significant gains in recruiting teachers, government and postal employes, service workers, and others, but have lost equal numbers of auto, steel, textile and rail workers.
"We have fewer [industrial union members] because there are fewer of them . . . ," he said, "What has happened to these unions is a measure of what has happened to America."