MIAMI BEACH--It was a historic merger steeped in tradition, but based in the reality that the nation's two apparel unions had to unite to survive. Those feelings were the thread that wove its way through the speeches, social talk and events at the June 29-30 founding convention of UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees, a merger of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union. The conditions that brought the two unions together were described best by Robert White, president of the two-million-member Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian equivalent of the AFL-CIO. UNITE is an affiliate of both national labor organizations. "We are told that unions are no longer relevant, that we're living in the past and that we're living in a world where the marketplace decides the agenda," said White, addressing the convention's final session. "Don't buy into it. When the free market last had free rein, we had the Great Depression. We want to build on the past, not tear down the past that others have built." On the surface there were great images and words that symbolized the legacy of the two unions. Rev. Jesse Jackson, speaking in his keynote address, said, "The union movement has a spirit that must not be derailed. These are unions where minorities have historically joined to form an alliance for social justice." There was a ringing chorus of "Solidarity Forever," with Jackson joining hands with Jay Mazur, the new president of UNITE, and Jack Sheinkman, the retiring president of the ACTWU, who seemed especially emotional during the entire convention. There was Mazur reading from the huge banner on the wall of the Grand Ballroom of the Fontainebleau Hilton, quoting the father of the labor movement, Samuel Gompers: "We want more schools, less jails; more books, less arsenals; more justice, less revenge." However, rank-and-file delegates and union leaders, whether debating UNITE's mission statement or speaking casually around a huge barbecue, agreed that the merger was an inevitable outcome of the decline in domestic manufacturing and the evolution of global trade. Mazur said by merging into one union, "we will significantly leverage our bargaining power" in shaping government policy and in contract negotiations in the industry. Some noted that President Clinton--whom the unions backed in 1992 and are backing for 1996--represents a departure from the traditional pro-labor candidate. Clinton was governor of Arkansas, a right-to-work state, where workers do not have to join a union, even if their shop is organized, and has been a champion of free trade, elements of which the union opposes. Jackson and Mazur stressed the fear brought about by the new era of conservatism in the country and the new Republican-controlled Congress, which Mazur called "Mr. Gingrich and his gang." "We have been there before, when workers were told if you don't work on Sunday, don't show up on Monday. When children worked in factories, and workers were told if they voted to be organized they would never work again," Mazur told the convention's 4,000 delegates and guests. "Today, we have representatives on the floor of Congress defending child labor in foreign countries." Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, echoed, "The barbarians are at the gate and have launched an attack on workers' rights." Mazur and Jackson acknowledged that the key challenge will be to stem the tide of union losses. In the past quarter-century, the union's combined membership rolls have plummeted to 350,000 from more than 900,000, while imports now account for more than 67 percent of all apparel sold in the U.S. Coinciding with the final day of the convention, negotiators from across the Western Hemisphere opened talks to establish the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. In an opinion piece that day in the Miami Herald, Thomas Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO and a candidate for its presidency following Kirkland's retirement later this year, urged the diplomats to negotiate an agreement that protects workers' rights and creates international industrial standards. Donahue's article assumed that the pact will come to pass, following the approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement and GATT, which created the World Trade Organization. Yet Mazur said it's the multinational corporations that "most threaten our existence." So, while the images of organized labor are set in time, its future continues to remain uncertain.
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