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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Thomas Donahue : Locked in the Struggle to Build a Revitalized Labor Union

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<i> Harry Bernstein covered labor issues for The Times for 32 years. He interviewed Thomas R. Donahue by phone from the labor leader's office in Washington, D.C</i>

Organized labor is in trouble. Unions now represent fewer than one in six American workers, down from one in three during the 1950s. Meanwhile, labor’s most vehement enemies now hold sway--with powerful Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress, and major employers fighting unions more furiously than they have in decades.

In an effort to combat these troubles, leaders of the 14-million member AFL-CIO are in the midst of a furious struggle for new leadership--and Thomas R. Donahue, an articulate, charming man, is at the center of that fight. As recently as a few months ago, Donahue insisted he would be retiring this year, at age 66, after serving for decades as a union activist and leader. He was secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO for the last 16 years, the second highest position in America’s preemeninent labor federation, encompassing 80 autonomous unions with nearly 14 million members.

But in June, Donahue announced he would seek election as president to replace the dour Lane Kirkland, 73, the longtime union leader, who had first insisted he would run for reelection but then dropped out of the race after facing strong opposition. Last week Kirkland resigned the presidency to help Donahue, who was named interim president by the federation’s 33-member executive board on Tuesday.

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That was no contest, since each council member had only one vote, regardless of the size of the member’s union, and most small unions supported Kirkland’s choice, Donahue. His real challenge will come in October at the AFL-CIO convention in New York where his opponent will be John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees Union. Sweeney claims he will have nearly 60% of the votes of the convention delegates, since votes are based on union membership, and most large unions back Sweeney. The winner of that election will serve a full two-year term and, if tradition is resumed, the new president will serve for many years. The last serious contest for the federation presidency was 101 years ago.

Sweeney and his supporters say Donahue has been too much a part of Kirkland’s administration to provide the new leadership they say is so urgently needed. Sweeney’s prediction of his victory could be wrong, but whoever wins, he must set about revitalizing the labor movement, providing what labor has most spectacularly lacked--strong, vocal leadership that can press an coherent liberal agenda. Neither candidate has sharply attacked the other, but in a recent conversation, Donahue indirectly criticized both Sweeney and also, for the first time, the uncharismatic Kirkland--who is seen as a handicap to Donahue.

A native New Yorker and graduate of Fordham Law School, Donahue is married to Rachelle Horowitz. They have two children.

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Question: Some of your supporters have denounced your opponent, John Sweeney, by saying he is splitting the ranks of unions when they desperately need unity in their battles with corporations and their enemies in Congress. Yet aren’t you doing the same thing by entering the race after the incumbent, Lane Kirkland, decided to drop out of the contest and back you to challenge Sweeney?

Answer: Until a few weeks ago, I was supported for the AFL-CIO presidency by John Sweeney and all of his present backers. I am running for the presidency because working men and women are threatened by an economic order which puts profits above people and by a political order which threatens to strip away anything that helps hard-working families whose real income is going down as profits rise. I know the men and women of the labor movement because I’ve been privileged to join them in more organizing drives, contract fights and political battles than anyone. I know what needs to be done to harness their talents and energy to forge the kind of unified, creative labor movement that can successfully stand up for working families. I believe that by virtue of my experience and abilities, I am the best qualified person to make the kind of changes that are needed to make the AFL-CIO into the leader of the fight for working families. I am persuaded that, over time, I can unify the labor movement behind those changes.

Q: Sweeney says the federation of unions should put a third of its budget in organizing new members. Do you agree?

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A: I agree the AFL-CIO needs to vastly expand the amount of money it spends to assist unorganized workers in forming unions of their own. That is not simply a question of money, but of training, targeting, tactics and much more. One of my proudest accomplishments as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer was our creation of the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute, to recruit and train organizers. At a time of very tight budgets, it is one of the largest programs of the AFL-CIO and is graduating 150 organizers a year--more than half of whom are women and persons of color. We need to accelerate the growth of that institute so that next year it doubles the number of organizers it graduates. I also believe we need to put tens of millions of dollars into an organizing trust fund to energize the organizing of workers in low-wage industries and in the new American high-tech work force.

Q: Since you and Sweeney have been close friends and allies for years, and you were his mentor in the Service Employees Union, do you have serious differences over the way the federation should be run?

A: John Sweeney and I see eye to eye on the importance of organizing low-wage workers and recruiting other members; on revitalizing our grass-roots political and legislative operations so as to put to shame the far-right Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Assn., and on creating a 21st-Century communications program for the labor movement.

But I believe I am best able to build broad support within the labor movement for those kinds of changes through open, inclusive decision-making. I would not be content to allow a small group of unions to hold closed caucuses and then dictate decisions for the entire AFL-CIO. I also believe that my experience and God-given abilities make me the best qualified to represent working families with Presidents, before Congress, on the airwaves and in all of the other public forums in which working people so desperately need a strong voice. I played that role in leading the fight against the North American Free Trade Agreement, and I look forward to doing so on many other issues that are so important to workers.

Q: Some union leaders believe President Clinton is too conservative and not doing all he can to help organized labor get social legislation it advocates and labor laws that would give unions more favorable treatment than they get under present labor laws. Do you agree?

A: No. We have sometimes disagreed with Bill Clinton--just as we disagreed with Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson at times. But the fact remains that President Clinton has regularly been on the side of working people and the unions that represent them.

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Unions and working families in general are getting a raw deal in Washington, but the culprit is not Bill Clinton--it’s Newt Gingrich and the Republican majorities in Congress. They are pushing the most anti-worker, anti-union agenda this country has seen in decades. They are undercutting the promise of America for millions of working families by attacking the very programs and policies these families rely on.

President Clinton’s position is clear--he has consistently supported changes in labor law that would help correct the huge tilt in favor of management and against American workers that we have today. He has appointed National Labor Relations Board members who, for the first time in years, are aggressively enforcing the law that protects the right of workers to organize unions. The Republicans in Congress are trying to stop the Labor Board dead in its tracks. President Clinton worked for legislation to make it illegal for employers to fire workers who exercise their right to strike. The Republicans in Congress filibustered that bill to death. President Clinton issued an executive order under which the federal government will no longer purchase goods or services from companies that permanently replace striking employees. The Republicans are trying to overturn that.

So, yes, we have some disagreements with him on a few issues, but we think he has been on the side of unions and working families.

Q: I understand the federation so far has not pressed Clinton or Congress for an overhaul of U.S. labor laws. Is it because you see certain defeat of such proposals in the GOP-controlled Congress? Why not agitate for the laws you feel are necessary--even if you lose? Wouldn’t that enable you to get more attention to your arguments for reform?

A: The problem is that we are fighting tough battles now here in Washington and across the country against more anti-labor laws and for the things that matter to working families: good jobs, good wages and strong health and safety protections--as well as for a real, independent worker voice on the job. But reforming labor law to restore the right of working people to associate freely in independent, democratically elected unions remains at the top of our agenda.

We supported the creation of a presidential commission as a first step toward developing constructive solutions, but unfortunately that commission produced a timid set of recommendations inadequate to address the real problems workers face. Now that Newt Gingrich is running Washington, we have found it necessary to fight vigorously against legislation which would let employers set up phony unions under management’s control and against the Republican’s efforts to prevent the Labor Board from enforcing the law.

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With the support and active involvement of America’s working families, we’re going to continue to fight these battles with everything we’ve got. We’ll make sure that the American people know who it is that is taking away their shot at the American dream--and that they hold the Republican right-wingers accountable in l996.

Q: Since some union leaders feel Clinton has not fought vigorously enough for labor-law reform, would you go along with suggestions that labor back another candidate for the Democratic nomination who is more pro-union--or even join in a coalition for a liberal, pro-labor third political party?

A: President Clinton has been fighting for workers, trying to get on-the-job training, college loans, a minimum wage increase, enforcement of health and safety laws and for workers rights. So I disagree with the premise of your question. If some other candidates come forward who are supportive of our goals and the goals of America’s working families, we would consider their record, evaluate their electability and make our best judgment as to how best advance the cause of working families--just as we do with all political candidates.

But I don’t think it is likely that anyone within the Democratic Party will mount a strong challenge to the President in 1996. It is even less likely that we will support a third-party candidate in the next Presidential election. I don’t think a third-party candidate can win in l996, and that candidate would only help elect a Gingrich clone by taking votes away from President Clinton. Working people cannot to risk that.

Q: Some union leaders say labor should set its own standards for political endorsements, supporting candidates who, generally, meet those standards, and abstain from endorsing anyone who does not come close. Has the federation too often supported political candidates who are at best lukewarm toward labor’s goals on the theory that one is “the better of two evils”?

A: I believe we should match our efforts for and against political candidates to their efforts for or against working people. In other words, elected officials who are real, dedicated supporters of policies that help workers will earn the real, dedicated, determined support of working families and of the unions that represent them; for those who find it possible to support workers’ interests only some of the time, we can be equally lukewarm in our support for them. But the problem is that, like all Americans, when union members go to the polls every year, they are called upon to choose between the candidates on the ballot. When one candidate is more favorable to the interests of working families, we owe it to our members to endorse that candidate--even if he or she falls short of perfect. It’s rare in politics that you can find the perfect candidate. So you have to make intelligent choices.*

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