“The basic goal of labor will not change. It is — as it has always been, and I am sure always will be — to better the standards of life for all who work for wages and to seek decency and justice and dignity for all Americans.”
by Irwin Yellowitz
Of the many types of organizations and leaders who have participated in the American labor movement, George Meany represented the most basic — the pragmatic craft unionism of the old American Federation of Labor (AFL). Born on August 16, 1894, his long career typified the ideas of the old AFL, and he must be understood in these terms.
Meany’s entire adult life was spent in the labor movement. He left school at the age of sixteen to become an apprentice in his father’s local of the plumbers’ union. This type of father and son arrangement was not uncommon in the building trades of the early twentieth century. After becoming a journeyman plumber, Meany quickly moved into the critical post of business agent. He was responsible for contract enforcement and providing employers with union workers. Meany did this difficult task well, and his focus on protecting the union and its members remained with him for the rest of his life.
With the support of the building trades unions, Meany became president of the New York State Federation of Labor in 1934. He was now involved in another central activity of his career — lobbying. Along with most of the other leaders of the AFL, Meany gave up the traditional fear of government in order to support legislation on behalf of workers. His experience as a trade union officer led him to stress tough-minded negotiation, compromise when necessary and gradual but steady progress. These same attitudes helped him become an effective lobbyist for organized labor in Albany and later in Washington.
Meany’s success in New York encouraged his selection as Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL in 1939. During World War II, he served on the War Labor Board where his abilities as a negotiator and lobbyist were used to balance labor’s interests with those of a war economy. In 1952, Meany became president of the AFL. His strong influence with the building trades unions was crucial in winning their support for the merger of the AFL with the CIO in 1955. Meany became President of the new AFL-CIO, a post he held until his death in January 1980.
The Democratic Party
As President of the AFL- dO, Meany continued to reflect his early life and career. Thus his strong anti-communism was certainly heavily influenced ~’ his Catholic background, and the strong antagonism to radicalism found in the building trades unions of the early twentieth century. It also flowed from his fear of state domination of trade unions – a widely held view among labor leaders in the days of Samuel Gompers and the old AFL.
Meany supported the Democratic Party through much of his career, but he did s~in the spirit of rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies that was the dominant approach in the old AFL. Thus in 1972, Meany refused to support the Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern, because of differences over the Vietnam War and organized labor’s place in the Democratic Party. Meany also did not hesitate to criticize Jimmy Carter during his presidency. Meany recognized that organized labor was usually better served by the Democratic Party, but it was an alliance and not a merger.
Meany’s attitude toward civil rights is another example of how his actions were based on his earlier career. He supported an equal job opportunity provision in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, yet quarreled with A. Philip Randolph and other black labor leaders who wanted to campaign vigorously within the labor movement for much the same objective. The difference to Meany was critical: equal job opportunity by law did not single out organized labor. Meany accepted the position widely held in the old AFL that any attack on unions, even on a particular issue, weakened the labor movement and fueled the work of its enemies. Meany was thus extremely sensitive to criticism of the AFL-CIO or himself as its President.
As President of the AFL-CIO, George Meany’s influence rested primarily on his effectiveness in serving the basic concerns of the unions he represented. These mainly concerned bread and butter issues. Since these were the fundamental concerns of the old AFL, Meany was able to be effective even though he maintained the ideas and values developed early in his life. George Meany’s career is one more testament to the impact of history upon the American labor movement.
Irwin Yellowitz is a Professor Emeritus at The City College of the City University of New York and President of the New York Labor History Association. © New York Labor History Association News Service, 2004