President of the AFL-CIO (1955-1979)
William George Meany
August 16, 1894
|Died||January 10, 1980 (aged 85)|
|Eugenia McMahon Meany|
|Parent(s)||Michael Meany and Anne Cullen Meany|
William George Meany (August 16, 1894 - January 10, 1980) was an American labor union leader for 57 years. He was the key figure in the creation of the AFL-CIO and served as the AFL-CIO's first president, from 1955 to 1979.
Meany, the son of a union plumber, became a plumber himself at a young age. He became a full-time union official 12 years later. As an officer of the American Federation of Labor, he represented the AFL on the National War Labor Board during World War II. He served as president of the AFL from 1952 to 1955.
He proposed its merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1952 and led the negotiations until the merger was completed in 1955. He then served as president of the merged AFL-CIO for the next 24 years.
Meany had a reputation for integrity and consistent opposition to corruption in the labor movement, and strong anti-communism. He was the best known union leader in the United States in the mid-20th century.
Meany was born into a Roman Catholic family in Harlem,New York City on August 16, 1894, the second of 10 children. His parents were Michael Meany and Anne Cullen Meany, who were both American-born and of Irish descent. His ancestors had immigrated to the United States in the 1850s. His father was a plumber and a strong supporter of the trade union movement and served as president of his plumber's union local. Michael Meany was also a precinct level activist in the Democratic Party.
Meany grew up in the Port Morris neighborhood of The Bronx, where his parents had moved when he was five years old. Always called "George", he learned that his real first name was William only when he got a work permit as a teenager. Following his father's career path, Meany quit high school at 16 to work as a plumber's helper. He then served a five-year apprenticeship as a plumber and got his journeyman's certificate in 1917, with Local 463 United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters of the United States and Canada.
His father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1916 after a bout of pneumonia. When Meany's older brother joined the US Army in 1917, George became the sole source of income for his mother and six younger children. He supplemented his income for a while by playing as a semiprofessional baseball catcher. In 1919, he married Eugenia McMahon, a garment worker and a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. They had three daughters.
In 1920, Meany was elected to the executive board of Local 463 of the Plumber's Union. In 1922, he became a full-time business agent for the local, which had 3,600 members at that time. Meany later stated that he had never walked a picket line during his plumber's union days, explaining that his original plumber's union never needed to picket, because the employers never attempted to replace the workers.
In 1923, he was elected secretary of the New York City Building Trades Council, the city federation of unions representing construction workers. He won a court injunction against an industry lockout in 1927, then considered an innovative tactic for a union, which was opposed by many of the older union leaders, .
In 1934, he became president of the New York State Federation of Labor, the statewide coalition of trade unions. In his first year of lobbying in Albany, the state capital, 72 bills that he supported in the state legislature were enacted into law, and he developed a close working relationship with Governor Herbert H. Lehman.
He developed a reputation for honesty, diligence and the ability to testify effectively before legislative hearings and to speak clearly to the press. In 1936, he cofounded the American Labor Party, a pro-union political party active in New York, along with David Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman, partly as a vehicle to organize support among socialists in the union movement for the re-election that year of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and mayor Fiorello La Guardia .
Three years later, he moved to Washington, DC to become national secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Labor, where he served under AFL president William Green. During World War II, Meany was one of the permanent representatives of the AFL to the National War Labor Board. During the war, he established close relationships with prominent anticommunists in the American labor movement, including David Dubinsky, Jay Lovestone and Matthew Woll. In October 1945, he led the AFL boycott of the founding conference of the World Federation of Trade Unions, which welcomed participation by labor unions from the Soviet Union and was later called a communist front.
The strike wave of 1945-1946, which was led to a large extent by CIO unions, resulted in passage of the Taft Hartley Act in 1947, which was widely perceived as anti-union. One provision required union officials to sign loyalty oaths affirming that they were not communists. Opposition to signing the oath was led by John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers Union.
Meany, in opposition to Lewis and other left-wing union leaders, replied that he would "go further and sign an affidavit that I was never a comrade to the comrades" since he had always ostracized communists. Within a year, most US union leaders unaffiliated with the Communist Party signed the affidavit, later upheld by the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1949 that the Communist Party was unique among American political parties in swearing allegiance to a foreign power.
When Green's health declined in 1951, Meany gradually took over day-to-day operations of the AFL. He became president of the American Federation of Labor in 1952 upon Green's death, which occurred just 12 days after the death of Congress of Industrial Organizations president Philip Murray.Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers became president of the CIO.
Upon taking leadership of the AFL, Meany put forward a proposal to merge with the CIO. Meany quickly took effective control of the AFL upon being elected president, but it took a bit longer for Reuther to solidify his control of the CIO. Reuther then became a willing partner in the merger negotiations.
It took Meany three years to negotiate the merger, and he had to overcome significant opposition. John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers called the merger a "rope of sand", and his union refused to join the AFL-CIO.Jimmy Hoffa, second in command of the Teamster's Union, protested, "What's in it for us? Nothing!" However, the Teamsters went along with the merger initially. Mike Quill, president of the Transport Workers Union of America also fought the merger, saying that it amounted to a capitulation to the "racism, racketeering and raiding" of the AFL.
Fearing a drawn-out negotiation process, Meany decided on a "short route" to reconciliation. This meant all AFL and CIO unions would be accepted into the new organization "as is", with all conflicts and overlaps to be sorted out after the merger. Meany further relied on a small, select group of advisors to craft the necessary agreements. The draft constitution was primarily written by AFL Vice President Matthew Woll and CIO General Counsel Arthur Goldberg, while the joint policy statements were written by Woll, CIO Secretary-Treasurer James Carey, CIO vice presidents David McDonald and Joseph Curran, Brotherhood of Railway Clerks President George Harrison, and Illinois AFL-CIO President Reuben Soderstrom.
Meany's efforts came to fruition in December 1955 with a joint convention in New York City that merged the two federations, creating the AFL-CIO, with Meany elected as president. Called Meany's "greatest achievement" by Time magazine, the new federation had 15 million members. Only two million US workers were members of unions remaining outside the AFL-CIO.
In 1953, under Meany's leadership, the International Longshoremen's Association, accused of racketeering, was expelled from the AFL, an early example of Meany's efforts against corruption and the influence of organized crime in the labor movement. After bitter internal reform, the union was readmitted to the now-merged AFL-CIO, in 1959.
Meany also fought against corruption in the AFL affiliated United Textile Workers of America from 1952. In 1957, he reported that the president of that union had been stealing more than $250,000. Meany also appointed an independent monitor to oversee reform of the union.
Concerns about corruption and the influence of organized crime in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, under the leadership of Dave Beck, led Meany to begin a campaign to reform that union in 1956. In 1957, in the midst of a fight for control of the union with Jimmy Hoffa, Beck was called before the United States Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management, commonly called the "McClellan Committee" after its chairman John Little McClellan, of Arkansas.
Televised hearings in early 1957 exposed misconduct by both the Beck and the Hoffa factions of the Teamsters Union. Both Hoffa and Beck were indicted, but Hoffa won the battle for control of the Teamsters. In response, the AFL-CIO instituted a policy that no union official who had taken the Fifth Amendment during a corruption investigation could continue in a leadership position. Meany told the Teamsters that they could continue as members of the AFL-CIO if Hoffa resigned as president. Hoffa refused, and the Teamsters were ousted from the AFL-CIO on December 6, 1957. Meany supported the AFL-CIO's adoption of a code of ethics, in the wake of the scandal.
Meany also led campaigns against organized crime leadership and corruption in the International Jewelry Workers Union, the Laundry Workers International Union, the AFL Distillery Workers, the AFL United Auto Workers, and the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union. He demanded the firing of corrupt union leaders and internal reorganization of the unions. When some unions resisted, he organized their expulsion from the AFL and later from the AFL-CIO, and he even set up rival unions. He set up an AFL-CIO Committee on Ethical Practices to investigate misconduct and insisted for unions under investigation to co-operate with its inquiries. According to John Hutchinson, a professor at UCLA, "few American union leaders have such a public record of repeated and explicit opposition to corruption."
Meany consistently defended President Lyndon B. Johnson's Vietnam War policies. He criticized labor leaders, including Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, who called for the US to withdraw its military forces from Vietnam, a stance that he predicted would lead to a communist victory in South Vietnam. In 1966, Meany insisted for AFL-CIO unions to give "unqualified support" to Johnson's war policy. AFL-CIO critics opposing Meany and the war at that time included Ralph Helstein of the United Packinghouse Workers of America, George Burdon of the United Rubberworkers and Patrick Gorman of the United Auto Workers.
Charles Cogen, president of the American Federation of Teachers opposed Meany in 1967, when the AFL-CIO convention adopted a resolution pledging support for the war in Vietnam. Reuther stated that he was busy with negotiations with General Motors in Detroit and could not attend the convention. In his speech to the convention, Meany said that, in Vietnam the AFL-CIO was "neither hawk nor dove nor chicken" but was supporting "brother trade unionists" struggling against Communism.
As an anticommunist who identified with the working class, Meany expressed contempt for the New Left. That movement had often criticized the labor movement for conservatism, racism, and anticommunism, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it included many supporters of Communist movements, such as the Viet Cong. In the aftermath of the violence by antiwar demonstrators and police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Meany sided with the police by calling the protesters a "dirtynecked and dirty-mouthed group of kooks".
Meany opposed the antiwar candidacy of U. S. Senator George McGovern for the presidency against incumbent Richard Nixon in 1972 despite McGovern's generally pro-labor voting record in Congress. However he declined to endorse Nixon. On Face the Nation in September 1972, Meany criticized McGovern's statements that the US should respect other peoples' rights to choose communism by pointing out that there had never been a country that had freely voted for communism. Meaney accused McGovern of being "an apologist for the Communist world".
Following Nixon's landslide defeat of McGovern, Meany said that the American people had "overwhelmingly repudiated neo-isolationism" in foreign policy. Meany pointed out that the American voters had split their votes by supporting the Democrats in Congress.
Meany's support for the war effort continued to the final days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnam in April, 1975. He called for President Gerald Ford to provide a US Navy "flotilla" if it was needed to ensure that hundreds of thousands of "friends of the United States" could escape before a communist regime could be established.
He also appealed for the admission of the maximum possible number of Vietnamese refugees to the United States. Meany blamed Congress for "washing its hands" of the war and of weakening South Vietnam's military, damaging is "will to fight". In particular, Meaney accused Congress of failing to provide adequate funding for US troops to stage an orderly withdrawal.
Despite their co-operation in the AFL-CIO merger, Meany and Reuther had a contentious relationship for many years. In 1963, Meany and Reuther disagreed about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a major event in the history of the civil rights movement in the United States. Meany opposed AFL-CIO endorsement of the march. In an AFL-CIO executive council meeting on August 12, Reuther's motion for a strong endorsement of the march was supported by only A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the titular leader of the march. The AFL-CIO endorsed a civil rights law and allowed individual unions to endorse the march. When Meany heard Randolph's speech after the march, he was visibly moved. Thereafter I, he supported the creation of the A. Philip Randolph Institute to strengthen labor unions among African Americans and to strengthen ties with the African American community. Randolph said that he was sure that Meany was morally opposed to racism.
At the time of the 1967 AFL-CIO convention, Reuther demanded that Meany make the AFL-CIO more democratic.
After years of disagreement with Meany, Reuther resigned from the AFL-CIO executive council in February 1967. In 1968, Reuther led the UAW out of the AFL-CIO, and the UAW did not re-affiliate with the AFL-CIO until 1981, long after Reuther's death in a 1970 plane crash.
In the midst of the Great Society reforms advocated by President Johnson, Meany and the AFL-CIO in 1965 endorsed a resolution calling for "mandatory congressional price hearings for corporations, a technological clearinghouse, and a national planning agency". American socialist leader Michael Harrington commented that the AFL-CIO had "initiated a programmatic redefinition that had much more in common with the defeated socialist proposal of 1894 than with the voluntarism of Gompers" referring to Samuel Gompers, the founder of the AFL, who had openly opposed socialism for decades. The 1965 resolution was part of the AFL-CIO's ongoing support for industrial democracy. Despite Meany's support for reform policies that were sometimes called "socialist", he also said that "I very much agree with the free market system-" Meaney pointed out, "When you don't have anything, you have nothing to lose by these radical actions. But when you become a person who has a home and has property, to some extent you become conservative."
As AFL-CIO president, Meany supported raising the minimum wage, increasing public works spending, and protecting union organizing rights. He also supported universal health care. Under his leadership, the AFL-CIO lobbied vigorously for its goals. He backed the two party system, and believed in "supporting your friends and punishing your enemies".
By the mid-1970s, Meany was past his 80th birthday and there were increasing calls for him to retire and pass leadership of the AFL-CIO to a younger man. In his final years, Meany took up amateur photography and painting as hobbies.
Meany's wife of 59 years, Eugenia, died in March 1979, and he became depressed after losing her. He injured his knee in a golfing mishap a few months before his death and was confined to a wheelchair. In November 1979, he retired from the AFL-CIO, after a 57-year career in organized labor. He was succeeded by Lane Kirkland, who served as AFL-CIO president for the next 16 years.
Meany died at George Washington University Hospital on January 10, 1980 from cardiac arrest. The AFL-CIO had 14 million members at the time of his death. President Jimmy Carter called him "an American institution" and "a patriot". He was interred at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland.
President John F. Kennedy established the Presidential Medal of Freedom on February 22, 1963, but died before he could award it. Two weeks after Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon Johnson awarded it to Meany and thirty others on December 6, 1963. Johnson said the award was for Meany's service to the union movement and for advancing freedom throughout the world.
On November 6, 1974, Meany dedicated the George Meany Center for Labor Studies (founded 1969), which was renamed the National Labor College in 1997. From 1993 to 2013, the college housed the George Meany Memorial Archives, held at the University of Maryland since 2013.
Books published about Meany include Meany: The Unchallenged Strong Man of American Labor (1972) and George Meany and His Times: A Biography (1981). Meany's entry in the biographical encyclopedia American National Biography was published in 2000, authored by historian David Brody.