George Meany – Labor Day 1978 – Past Daily Reference Room
A little background on George Meany if you aren’t already familiar:
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 at a young age, as well. 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.
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 to represent construction workers. He won a court injunction against a lockout in 1927, then considered an innovative tactic, opposed by many of the older leaders, for a union.
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 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, 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 took 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.
As a reminder, here is George Meany’s Annual Labor Day Address, from September 4, 1978.