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[Section Navigation] November 19, 1997

Labor's Crisis--And Its Opportunity


Ron Carey's fall from power this week--a federal overseer barred him from seeking re-election asTeamsters union president--isn't just a victory against union corruption. It may also be an opportunity for organized labor to throw off its reflexively leftist politics and steer a more centrist course.

To understand the true significance of these developments, we must go back to the early 1970s. In December 1972, author James Ring Adams wrote on this page of a "Battle Royale Among the Socialists." Mr. Adams was referring to the ideological fault lines that were fracturing the intellectual-labor coalition in the wake of Sen. George McGovern's rise to power in the Democratic Party.

Mr. McGovern was a neoisolationist with elitist, antilabor tendencies; and the convention that nominated him had refused to seat the president of the AFL-CIO, George Meany, the anticommunist leader of the Democratic trade union movement.

In the years that followed,the McGovernites held sway within the Democratic Party--but were kept at bay within the labor movement under the leadership of Meany's successor, Lane Kirkland, and his secretary/treasurer, Thomas Donahue.

Mr. Kirkland made the AFL-CIO a major force in the battle against international communism, playing a crucial role in supporting Poland's Solidarity movement.

Ideological Struggle

But labor veered left in 1995, when Mr. Sweeney defeated Mr. Donahue in the race to succeed Mr. Kirkland as AFL-CIO president. And behind all the talk about money laundering and corruption inside the House of Labor lurks the next stage in an ideological struggle that has been running for more than a generation.

Its trajectory was set when the writer Michael Harrington created the Democratic Socialists of America in 1972. In a lather over the Socialist Party's lukewarm "statement of preference" for Sen. McGovern, Harrington seceded from the party, opening a rift that has never been mended.

On the other side of the divide stand the more moderate Social Democrats-USA. Many of its members participated in the Reagan revolution and were partisans in the AFL-CIO's fight against communism in Poland.

Democratic Socialists and Social Democrats: As anachronistic as these names sound to the American ear, the two groups' ideological differences explain a lot about the current situation inside the labor movement.

Mr. Sweeney's rise has given Harrington's heirs a new prominence within the labor movement. Four erstwhile members of Students for a Democratic Society have emerged at the center of the Teamsters scandal, including, most notably, the onetime campus radical Michael Ansara, who has pleaded guilty to raising campaign funds illegally for Mr. Carey.

Mr. Sweeney himself belongs to the Democratic Socialists. (The group made headlines just last month when it was reported that a member of its governing political committee, Kurt Stand, had been spying for the East German secret police for 20 years.)

The new AFL-CIO chief has taken an indiscriminate approach to coalition building. He held hands with the New Age Rabbi Michael Lerner at Mr. Lerner's touchy-feely "Summit on Ethics and Meaning" last year, and he has cozied up to left-wing MIT linguist Noam Chomsky. More broadly, Mr. Sweeney's AFL-CIO has emphasized partisan politics over organizing, dumping millions of dollars into electoral contests in which the Republican candidate was deemed vulnerable.

None of this sits well with the Social Democrats, who fell out of power in 1995. "They've got nothing to offer that wasn't done before--and done better before," says Donald Slaiman, president of the Social Democrats and an official at the AFL-CIO under Mr. Kirkland.

Mr. Slaiman would like to see Big Labor become once again a vibrant, independent force, the engine behind gradual social change as opposed to a vehicle for class warfare.

Internationally, of course, the Social Democrats favor interventionism in support of democracy.

They may yet get their wish. The scandal engulfing Mr. Carey just might pave the way for the return to power of the labor movement's Cold War brain trust. Mr. Sweeney's fate is closely linked to that of Mr. Carey; not only did Mr. Carey swing his union behind the AFL-CIO president, but investigators are looking into charges that the AFL-CIO responded in kind by helping to steer cash into Mr. Carey's campaign coffers.

Without Mr. Carey, there's no reason to believe that the Teamsters will stick by Mr. Sweeney--especially because Mr. Hoffa will have his own score to settle with the AFL-CIO's president. Some even speculate that the Teamsters will be kicked out of the federation. In any case, it's likely that Mr. Sweeney's base of power will be substantially eroded. "If Carey doesn't survive, it is going to be a very tense few years in the AFL-CIO," predicted one labor expert, sociologist Stanley Aronowitz of the City University of New York's Graduate Center.

Here's where the Social Democrats come in. It's rumored in labor circles that if the Teamsters are indeed expelled from the federation (or leave voluntarily), the unions that were defeated in the 1995 election may unite behind the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Sandra Feldman. Ms. Feldman, the protege of the late Albert Shanker, says she is 100% behind Mr. Sweeney; at a recent executive council meeting, however, she pressed the AFL-CIO chief about the Teamsters debacle. What's more, the AFT is currently in the process of merging with the National Education Association, a deal that could put her at the helm of the largest trade union in the free world.


In the event that the Teamsters stay in the federation, there is also the possibility of an alliance between traditional Social Democratic forces like the AFT and the so-called bread-and-butter unions, like the Teamsters, which are primarily concerned with wages, pensions and benefits. There is a precedent for such an alliance: George Meany, the plumber who commanded the labor movement during the waning years of the Cold War, was closely aligned with the intellectual Albert Shanker.

Mr. Adams concluded his 1972 Journal article by quoting a prominent Social Democrat, Penn Kemble, as saying that the "New Politics" doesn't just want a place in the liberal coalition of the Democratic Party; it wants to take over the Democratic Party--even if that meant throwing out the labor movement. A generation later, a struggle is erupting over whether the labor movement should forge an alliance with the wing of the Democratic Party that turned its back on the worker a quarter-century ago.

Mr. Mahler is managing editor of the Forward newspaper.

Copyright 1997 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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