The legacy of George Meany

The US labor movement is not apt to find another spokesman and leader the likes of George Meany. Nor should it be looking for one. Changing social and economic conditions call for a new kind of leader, more in tune with today's rapid technological advances and the new demands being made on the American work force. But if the crusty, blunt- talking Mr. Meany, one-time plumber from the Bronx who, with only an eighth-grade education, rose to the most powerful labor post in the US, represented the last of a fading breed of labor leader, tomorrow's college-educated administrators might well learn a thing or two from Mr. Meany's 25 years at the helm of the AFL-CIO.

Mr. Meany's was not only an effective voice for the 13.6 million members of the AFL-CIO. His leadership helped bring about improvements in the living and working conditions of all American workers, reflected in better wages, healthier on-the-job surroundings, and institution of minimum wage and unemployment programs. Under the Meany leadership, the labor movement was frequently in the forefront of national efforts to enact progressive social legislation, particularly in the field of civil rights. (Although in recent years the AFL-CIO was faulted for not doing more to racially integrate construction unions.)

Fundamentally, Mr. Meany was always a strong defender of US democracy and capitalism and steered the union movement from the socialism espoused by labor leaders in Europe and elsewhere. "Workers are not blind to the imperfections and injustices of the system," he once noted, "but they are deaf to the cries of those who would wreck the best system of government yet devised by man in the vain hope that something better might replace it."

Mr. Meany had a special knack for holding together the warring factions within the giant federation and getting the 35 union leaders on its executive council to work together. Yet the union movement was not without its failures. Under Mr. Meany, it never succeeded in effectively organizing the entire country , the South in particular. In latter years the percentage of union members among US workers has declined, and the AFL-CIO leadership seemed slow to adjust with the times, failing to accommodate the influx of women into the labor market , for instance.

Mr. Meany never hesitated to take on presidents and other powerful politicians with whom he disagreed. To the very end, he was speaking out against any government policy he felt threatened to harm the working man and woman. In his last appearance before the AFL-CIO membership he criticized the Carter administration's economic policies as "ill-advised, ill-considered, ineffective, and inequitable." Yet he held the respect of most public officials he criticized. President Carter called him "an American institution" and a "patriot" who "changed the shape of our nation for the better in hundreds of ways, great and small, through the force of his character and the integrity of his beliefs. . . . We are all George Meany's people."

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