As Americans prepare to celebrate Labor Day on Monday, the federation of unions representing 15 percent of the U.S. public- and private-sector work force is experiencing a shake-up that could change the face of U.S. labor for years to come.

Led by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and three giant industrial unions, 25 unions are pushing the AFL-CIO to take a more aggressive stance against employers and regain the political clout organized labor wielded at the end of World War II.In 1945, 36 percent of the work force - public and private sectors - was unionized.

The campaign comes at a time when U.S. workers are seeing jobs disappear as corporations slash personnel or shift production abroad, and as the Republican-led Congress tries to reverse labor protections dating back to the New Deal.

It will climax Oct. 25, when a slate of candidates led by John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union, challenges AFL-CIO President Tom Donahue for the leadership of the federation.

"He's ahead, there's no question in my mind about that," said Mr. Donahue, in an interview this week. But he predicted he will win by persuading some opposition unions to switch sides.

On many issues, the campaigns offer similar programs; both stress the need to expand union organizing, attract more women and minorities to the labor movement, and sharpen the AFL-CIO's political and media work.

When the North American Free Trade Agreement came up in a debate in Los Angeles last week, Mr. Sweeney praised Mr. Donahue for leading labor's fight against it.

But clear differences have emerged over the future of the AFL-CIO and labor's role in international affairs.

Many labor activists believe the AFL-CIO must make sweeping changes, to meet the challenges of the global economy and to confront corporations and politicians trying to weaken unions. They envision transforming the AFL-CIO

from a loose federation into a powerful social movement.

"Workers have only one thing, and that is each other," Richard L. Trumka, president of the United Mineworkers of America and the opposition candidate for secretary-treasurer, said in an interview. "We will respond on behalf of workers, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and on leap years it'll be 366."

Internationally, the opposition wants the AFL-CIO to adopt a strategy that confronts multinationals with coordinated global bargaining and confrontational tactics involving unions from other countries.

"We want to refocus international campaigns (and) make them relevant to winning campaigns for workers here and creating cross-border solidarity," Mr. Trumka said. "Strategic campaigns in a global economy means a lot of jobs."


To coordinate those efforts, Mr. Trumka said, the AFL-CIO should organize a Transnational Monitoring Project to assist unions engaged in international disputes and to monitor global institutions like the World Bank.

The project would have a full-time staff and be linked to a proposed Office of Strategic Planning, which would work with AFL-CIO affiliates to develop organizing and targeting strategies.

"We will expand our capabilities beyond the borders of the U.S. and Canada to every corner of the world," Mr. Trumka said.

As a model corporate campaign, many labor activists pointed to a 1991 campaign in which the United Steelworkers of America tracked down the holdings and whereabouts of Marc Rich, the elusive Swiss owner of Ravenswood Aluminum Corp. With help from European unions, the campaign forced the company to reinstate 1,700 workers fired during a West Virginia strike.

"All of these ideas are things we've been doing for years," said Mr. Donahue. "I think our record is a pretty good one," particularly in the area of solidarity campaigns.

"What's wrong with the Sweeney campaign is, they want to proclaim the way forward, and they're going forward with a minority of unions," he said. ''With their emphasis on the federation, they're exaggerating what it can do, in opposition to what individual unions can do."

Mr. Donahue said he would continue to press for protection of workers' rights in new trade agreements, such as the proposed extension of the Nafta to Chile. "Without workers' rights in the main agreement, without the ability to enforce violations as actionable unfair trade practices, we should oppose future agreements," he said.

He said the AFL-CIO keeps tabs on multinationals through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and other organizations. The AFL-CIO has also organized support for several corporate campaigns, including the one against Ravenswood, he said.

The proposed transnational institute, he said, "is old wine in new bottles."

"There is a danger in claiming you have to build a huge institution" to conduct solidarity campaigns, Mr. Donahue warned. "Pretending to gather information on every multinational in the world against the possibility you may have a problem" with some of them "may not be the most efficient use of resources."

The most explosive issue raised by the opposition concerns the record of the AFL-CIO institutes that use U.S. government funds to support unions in developing countries. In 1995, the AFL-CIO institutes in Asia, Africa and Central America received nearly $12 million from Congress, a State Department official said.

Many labor officials have criticized the institutes for being too closely tied to U.S. Cold War policies.

"Before, if you got involved supporting unions, you had to look after whether they were right-wing or left-wing," said Jack Sheinkman, a former textile-union president who challenged AFL-CIO foreign policy in the 1980s. ''We supported unions, independent unions."

Critics of the institutes point to an incident in 1988, when the AFL-CIO's American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) lobbied the Reagan administration to reject a proposal to penalize El Salvador for violating workers' rights.

"That is one of the worst blots on AFL-CIO history," said Holly Burkhalter, the Washington representative for Americas Watch, who wrote the petition to remove El Salvador from the Generalized System of Preferences.

She said the AIFLD overlooked serious human-rights violations against unions supporting the leftist insurgency against the U.S.-supported administration of Jose Napoleon Duarte.

"The focus of those institutes was not on winning any kind of campaign, but geared towards winning the Cold War," Mr. Trumka said. Government money, he said, "set the agenda rather than the trade union movement setting the agenda."

Because of their history, the AFL-CIO institutes remain detached from the needs of U.S. workers and "lack the ability to identify transnational and multinational corporations," he said.

Worse, because the institutes "didn't tell people (abroad) what our economic system was really like and what it did to workers . . . there's never been the international scrutiny on the United States to change the system to make it more worker-friendly," he said.


"I think Rich (Trumka) is dead wrong," said Mr. Donahue. "To say they're soft on capitalism or gloss over U.S. problems is simply a distortion that is not credible."

Mr. Donahue said two AIFLD officials promoting land reform in El Salvador were assassinated in 1981. "To say we were carrying out policies not in support of El Salvador's unions is to denigrate those people," he said. "Our policy was never dictated by the Duarte government or the American government."

In any case, the institutes make their decisions independent of the government, he said.

"We propose an agenda and we propose budgets; if they (government agencies) choose to fund them, we can carry them out," he said. "I know the Cold War is over, and I suspect everyone in the institutes knows that."

But a recent AIFLD document on Cuba appears to contradict those assertions. The report, entitled "Foreign Investors: Oiling the Cuban Government Machine," argued against efforts to ease the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba and concluded that foreign investment under Fidel Castro "is not likely to lead to a democratic outcome."