Related topics

AFL-CIO New Agenda the Focus at Final Bal Harbour Meeting

February 18, 1996

BAL HARBOUR, Fla. (AP) _ The AFL-CIO applies the finishing touches to a program to revitalize unions this week at what has been declared its final winter meeting in sunny Bal Harbour _ a vestige of big labor’s halcyon days.

International union presidents who comprise the AFL-CIO executive council are expected to approve proposals by their newly elected president, John Sweeney, to invest in organizing and hone labor’s political strategy.

They’ll also be saying goodbye to a labor tradition.

The Bal Harbour meeting has been a winter rite of labor for a half-century, known for behind-the-scenes horse trading but better known for the pool parties and late nights in the lounge.

``It was the Turkish bazaar of the labor movement,″ said Bill Eaton, a veteran labor reporter who covered his first Bal Harbour meeting in 1957. ``If you wanted something, or you wanted to work out a deal with somebody, it was the place to be.″

Last year’s meeting signaled a change of course. Leaders of many of the largest unions banded together to push president Lane Kirkland aside, saying declining memberships and waning clout showed the need for a new voice for labor.

Coming on the heels of the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress, the meeting also helped heal a rift between the federation and the Clinton administration over the North American Free Trade Agreement. Vice President Al Gore announced Clinton’s ban prohibiting federal agencies from working with companies that replace strikers.

This year, Sweeney is in charge after defeating Kirkland’s longtime deputy, Thomas Donahue, at the AFL-CIO’s convention in October with promises of ambitious reforms.

Gore returns after a federal appeals court threw out the striker replacement ban and hard-won worker safety protections are under fire in Congress. Other guests include the secretaries of labor and the Treasury.

Many frustrated union members voted Republican in 1994. But Gerald McEntee, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said much of the GOP agenda, including efforts to slash the National Labor Relations Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, should convince union members to back Democrats.

McEntee said ``the biggest break that we ever got″ was a ``right-wing conservative, reactionary Congress.″ Republicans, he said, ``have given us another chance to make the case to our members.″

The Bal Harbour meeting dates to 1951, before the American Federation of Labor merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The idea was to improve relations between union leaders and ease jurisdictional tensions.

After the merger, Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers who led the CIO, groused that the resort setting was unbecoming for a labor movement.

Reuther said he was squeezing his own orange juice in his room to save money and once moved to a cheaper hotel _ until he learned his new digs were run by the Mafia. Others point out that Reuther never missed the dinners.

AFL-CIO President George Meany conceded once to Reuther’s complaints _ by moving the event to Puerto Rico.

In the 1970s, the meeting became something of a spectacle. Union officials scheduled more meetings to precede or follow the executive council’s conference, extending their time in the sun.

Then came the inevitable backlash. Reporters used the meeting to portray labor leaders out of touch with their rank and file. One reporter seemed to do it every year.

Irving R. Levine became a burr in union leaders’ swimming trunks with annual hits on big labor basking in the sun while strikers froze on picket lines in Minnesota or Chicago.

Retired AFL-CIO spokesman Rex Hardesty said some labor officials determined to keep returning to Bal Harbour until Levine stopped telling them they shouldn’t.

But reporters who criticized the meeting never complained about the private press cabana on the beach or protested when the moveable feast shifted from the hotel lounge up to the Singapore, an after-hours club.

In fact, it seems the stories of the good old days in Bal Harbour involve reporters more often than labor officials.

There were the Detroit reporters and the fleet of convertibles at their disposal in Miami. And there’s the one about the scribe who, finding himself heaven knows where after a long night on the town, had to hitch a ride back to the hotel in a bagel truck.

Now differences over rates and other matters at the hotel, and a sense that labor can no longer afford such high times, make this the last Bal Harbour meeting.

In addition to the political obstacles, union membership declined again in 1995 to 16.7 million, from 16.9 million the year before, the Labor Department said. AFL-CIO unions represent 13.1 million members.

Sweeney has pledged to invest $20 million in an organizing campaign this year, and federation officials have been negotiating to bring a large independent union into the AFL-CIO.

Update hourly