About William George Meany
William George Meany (August 16, 1894 – January 10, 1980) led labor union federations in the United States. As an officer of the American Federation of Labor, he represented the AFL on the National War Labor Board during World War II.
Meany served as President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) from 1952 to 1955. As President of the AFL, he proposed in 1952 and managed in 1955 its merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He served as President of the combined AFL-CIO from 1955 to 1979. Meany had a reputation for personal integrity, opposition to corruption and anti-communism. George Meany was called the "most nationally recognized labor leader in the country for the more than two decades spanning the middle of the 20th century."
Meany was born into a Roman Catholic family in Harlem in New York City on August 16, 1894. 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, Michael Meany was a plumber and a "staunch trade unionist" who served as president of his plumber's union local. That union had been formed in 1889. Michael Meany was also a precinct level activist in the Democratic Party.
He 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 did not know that his real first name was William until he got a work permit as a teenager. Following in his father's footsteps, Meany quit high school at the age of 16, 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.
Michael Meany died suddenly of a heart attack in 1916 after a bout of pneumonia. When George Meany's older brother joined the United States Army in 1917, he became the sole support for his mother and six younger children. He supplemented his income for a while by playing as a semi-professional 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.
Rise in union leadership
In 1920, Meany was elected to the executive board of Local 463. In 1922, he became a full time business agent of the local, which had 3,600 members at that time. In 1923, he was elected secretary of the New York City Building Trades Council. He won a court injunction against a lockout in 1927, which was then considered an innovative tactic for a union. In 1934, he became president of the New York State Federation of Labor. He developed a reputation for honesty, diligence and the ability to testify effectively before legislative hearings and speak clearly to the press. In 1936, he co-founded the American Labor Party along with David Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman, as a vehicle to organize support for the re-election that year of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and mayor Fiorello La Guardia among Socialists in the union movement.
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, he was one of the permanent representatives of the AFL to the National War Labor Board. During the war, he established close ties to prominent anti-communists in the U.S. labor movement, including David Dubinsky, Jay Lovestone and Matthew Woll. In 1945, he led the AFL boycott of the World Federation of Trade Unions, which welcomed participation by communist labor groups from the Soviet Union.
When William 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 the Green's death., which occurred just 12 days after the death of Congress of Industrial Organizations president Philip Murray. Meany immediately advocated the merger of the two rival U.S. labor federations. Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers became president of the CIO, and he too supported a merger.
Merger of the AFL and the CIO
Meany's "first official act" after becoming head of the AFL in 1952 was to put forward a proposal to merge with the CIO.
Meany took firm control of the AFL immediately upon being elected president, but it took a bit longer for Walter Reuther to solidify his control of the CIO. Reuther was 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, then second in command of the Teamster's Union, protested, "What's in it for us? Nothing!", but the Teamsters went along with the merger initially.
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. The new federation had 15 million members, while two million U.S. workers were members of unions outside the AFL-CIO.
Ouster of Teamsters Union from AFL-CIO in 1957
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 an anti-corruption drive 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 L. McClellan of Arkansas. Robert F. Kennedy was chief counsel of the committee.
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.
Democratic economic planning
In the midst of the Great Society reforms advocated by President Lyndon B. 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". Democratic Socialists of America leader Michael Harrington wrote 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.
Meany defended "the aims" of Lyndon B. Johnson's policy in the Vietnam War. He criticized those labor leaders, including Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, who called for the U.S. to withdraw its military forces from Vietnam, a policy that he predicted would lead to a communist victory in South Vietnam and the destruction of its free trade-unions.
A 1966 article in the Miami News stated that Meany demanded that unions give "unqualified support" to Johnson's war policy. Critics opposing Meany and the war 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 "we pledge the continued support of American labor in Vietnam". Walter Reuther stated that he was busy with negotiations with General Motors in Detroit, and could not attend the convention. "Sniping" at Meany, Reuther issued "demands" "to make the AFL-CIO more 'democratic'". 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.
Meany's support for Vietnam continued even in the final days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in April, 1975. He called for President Gerald Ford, if needed, to provide a U.S. Navy "flotilla" to ensure that hundreds of thousands of "friends of the United States" could escape before a Communist regime could be established. He called for rescue of refugees from Vietnam. 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 so "undercut[ting]" South Vietnam's military forces, damaging their "will to fight"; in particular, Congress had failed to provide adequate funding for U.S. troops to stage an orderly withdrawal, Meany stated.
Departure of the United Auto Workers union from the AFL-CIO in 1968
Despite their cooperation in the AFL-CIO merger, Meany and Walter Reuther had a contentious relationship for many years.
In 1963, Meany and Reuther disagreed about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In an AFL-CIO executive council meeting on August 12, Reuther's motion for a strong endorsement of the march was supported only by A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, whose was the titular leader of the march. The AFL-CIO endorsed a civil-rights law and allowed individual unions to endorse the march. However, when George Meany heard A. Philip Randolph's speech, he was visibly moved. Thereafter, 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.
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 until after Reuther's death in a 1970 plane crash.
1972 Presidential election
An anti-communist who identified with the working class, Meany expressed contempt for the New Left, which from the start had criticized the labor movement for conservatism, racism, and anti-communism and which in the late 1960s and early 1970s had many supporters of Communist movements, such as the Viet Cong. He criticized the New Left and the New Politics of George McGovern for elitism. A cultural conservative, Meany ridiculed a proposal of same-sex marriage.
Meany opposed the anti-war 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. He also declined to endorse Nixon. On Face the Nation in September 1972, Meany criticized McGovern's statements that the U.S. should respect other peoples' rights to choose communism, because there had never been a country that had voted for communism; he 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 split their votes by voting for Democrats in Congress. According to Meany, class resentment was a major reason that Nixon won 49 states against McGovern, despite the dislike of the Vietnam War by a majority of American voters.
Public image and cultural controversies
President John F. Kennedy re-established the Presidential Medal of Freedom on February 22, 1963. Two weeks after Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded it to Meany and 30 others on December 6, 1963. In granting the award, President Johnson said of Meany, "Citizen and national leader, in serving the cause of labor, he has greatly served the cause of his Nation and of freedom throughout the world."
Meany was well known as a cigar smoker, and appeared twice on the cover of TIME magazine with a cigar in his mouth. Meany stated that he had never walked a picket line, explaining that his union never needed to form a picket line, because the employers made no attempt to replace the workers.
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 ""despondent". He injured his knee in a golfing mishap a few months before his death, and was confined to a wheelchair. In November, 1979, he resigned 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 16 years.
Meany died at George Washington University Hospital on January 10, 1980. The AFL-CIO had 14 million members at time of death. President Jimmy Carter called him "an American institution" and "a patriot".
The AFL-CIO established the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in Silver Spring, Maryland in 1974; the Center was renamed the National Labor College-George Meany Campus in 2004. The Meany Campus has housed the George Meany Memorial Archives, which holds all of the AFL-CIO records going back to the founding of the AFL in 1881, since 1987.
In 1994, Meany was pictured on a United States commemorative postage stamp, which was issued on the 100th anniversary of his birth.