Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Labor Leadership Faltering

The reporter from a national-chain of newspapers sounded astonished last April. He had just called Irving Shapiro, head of the giant Du Pont company, to ask his reaction to the Big Business Day coalition of consumer and labor groups citing Du Pont for what the coalition called harmful business practices.

Coolly and with smooth confidence, Shapiro told the reporter to call Lane Kirkland, head of the AFL-CIO, and see if “Lane” agreed that Du Pont and Shapiro are behaving badly.

What amazed the reporter was that Du Pont was a determined non-union industrial company which is bitterly op­posing any organizing efforts by the United Steelworkers of America, a member of the AFL-CIO. What he did not realize was that the “Ivy” and “Lane” friendship has long transcended such a paradox and symbolizes the state of organized labor’s leadership.

The AFL-CIO and many of its member unions have run out of gas. They have become hitchhikers on the big business highway. Politically and econ­omically, their power has declined to a point where, to their adversaries, they no longer possess even an appearance of power.

Richard Viguerie, the computerized right-wing mass mailer, can taunt the giant AFL-CIO as being in the Middle Ages as far as its ability to reach people and shape public opinion. Indeed, organized labor has no national radio program and no national TV program. Its union newspapers, with a few excep­tions, arc dull, underfinanced and little-read, despite their combined circulation of 30 million copies.

Labor’s leaders have lost touch with their rank and file. Barely a majority of union workers voted against Ronald Reagan nationwide. Amazed senators and representatives find their desks piled high with worker letters, inspired by plant managers, against proposals to advance worker health, such as the toxic substances control bill in 1976. The managers falsely told workers that the legislation would cost the workers their jobs.

The weakness and flatness of most in­dependent trade unions is turning them into de facto company unions. With few exceptions their representatives are found supporting the passage of corporate tax inequities, weaker con­sumer and environmental safeguards and self-defeating trade-protectionist mea­sures because the corporations tell them that such bailouts are necessary to keep the factory doors open. The corporate model of the economy becomes grafted on the labor union’s soul and con­science.

What is organized labor getting for its support of big business? Sophisticated union-busting drives. Systematic opposi­tion to organizing industrial workers all o’er the Country. And planning by corporate chieftains for major erosions of the rights or working people, including the critical area of occupation­al disease and injury.

Moreover, the Reagan victory will turn the tide against many of the remaining corporate doubters that com­panies should not overplay their power against industrial and mining unions,

A just-released poll of 782 chief business executives by the Wall Street Journal/Gallup surveys indicated that the bosses like unions when unions weigh in politically behind corporate policies, but not otherwise…”Unions are OK, I guess,” said the head of a large chemical firm. “They helped us in our efforts to reduce government regula­tion.”

Since government regulation of the chemical industry tries to restrain the destructive effects of chemicals and their wastes on. people and property, the chemical executive’s praise is scarcely praiseworthy.

I here are unionists who know some­thing must he done. Kenneth Young, at the AFL-CIO headquarters knows. So does William Winpisinger, leader of the Machinists’ union. And bright union advisers like Ray Rogers, architect of the victory over the J.P. Stevens company, know that labor leaders let billions of pension dollars owned by the workers he controlled and used by com­panies, banks and insurance firms against worker interests.

As long as Lane Kirkland spends more time with corporate executives than with the workers on the assembly line or in the mines, the leadership of organized labor will reflect just that kind of misorientation—elitist, corpor­ate-indentured and inert.

Kirkland is up for re-election next year. There are no signs that any labor leader is going to challenge him with another vision and another platform to reverse the falling fortunes of the working class in America.