George Meany

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George Meany
President of the AFL–CIO (1955–1979)
Born William George Meany
(1894-08-16)August 16, 1894
Harlem, New York City
Died January 10, 1980(1980-01-10) (aged 85)
Washington, DC
Occupation Labor leader
Spouse(s) 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 a key figure in the creation of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, and served as the AFL-CIO's first president from 1955–1979.

Meany's father was union plumber, and like his father, he became a plumber at a young age, but moved on to became a full-time union official twelve 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 combined AFL-CIO for the next 24 years.

Meany had a reputation for integrity and consistency in his opposition to corruption in the labor movement,[1] and uncompromising anti-communism. He was called the "most nationally recognized labor leader in the country for the more than two decades spanning the middle of the 20th century."[2]

Early years[edit]

Meany was born into a Roman Catholic family in Harlem[3] in New York City on August 16, 1894, the second of 10 children.[4] His parents were Michael Meany and Anne Cullen Meany, who were both American-born and of Irish descent.[2] His ancestors had immigrated to the United States in the 1850s. His father Michael was a plumber and a "staunch trade unionist" who served as president of his plumber's union local.[5] That union had been formed in 1889. Michael Meany was also a precinct level activist in the Democratic Party.[6]

He grew up in the Port Morris neighborhood of The Bronx, where his parents had moved when he was five years old.[6] Always called "George", he did not know that his real first name was William until he got a work permit as a teenager.[6] Following in his father's footsteps, Meany quit high school at the age of 16[7] to work as a plumber's helper,[4] served a five-year apprenticeship as a plumber, and got his journeyman's certificate[5] in 1917 with Local 463 United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters of the United States and Canada.[2]

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, George became the sole support for his mother and six younger children.[6] He supplemented his income for a while by playing as a semi-professional baseball catcher.[6] In 1919, George Meany married Eugenia McMahon, a garment worker and a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.[2] They had three daughters.

Rise in union leadership[edit]

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.[6] 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.[6] In 1934, he became president of the New York State Federation of Labor. In his first year of lobbying in Albany, 72 bills he supported became law, and he developed a close working relationship with the governor, Herbert H. Lehman.[4]

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, 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.[8]

Three years later, he moved to Washington, DC to become national secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Labor.[7] 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.[6] 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.[6] 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.[6]

The strike wave of 1945-1946, led to a large extent by CIO unions, resulted in passage of the Taft Hartley Act in 1947, widely perceived as anti-union in its effects. 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 a blow against Lewis and other left-wing union leaders, replied that he would "go further and sign an affadavit that I was never a comrade to the comrades."[4]

When William Green's health declined in 1951, Meany gradually took over day-to-day operations of the AFL.[9] He became president of the American Federation of Labor in 1952 upon Green's death.,[7] 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.

In 1953, under Meany's leadership, the International Longshoremen's Association, accused of racketeering, was expelled from the AFL. This was an early example of Meany's long personal battle against corruption and the influence of organized crime in the labor movement. After bitter internal reform struggles, the union was readmitted[4] to the AFL-CIO in 1959. Meany also fought against corruption in the AFL affiliated United Textile Workers of America, starting in 1952. In 1957, Meany reported that the president of that union had been "stealing the Union's money to the extent of well over a quarter of a million dollars", and he appointed an independent monitor to oversee reform of the union.[1]

Merger of the AFL and the CIO[edit]

Meany's "first official act" after becoming head of the AFL in 1952 was to put forward a proposal to merge with the CIO.[10] 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.[11] Jimmy Hoffa, then second in command of the Teamster's Union, protested, "What's in it for us? Nothing!",[11] but the Teamsters went along with the merger initially. Mike Quill, president of the Transport Workers Union of America also fought the merger,[11] saying that it amounted to a capitulation to the "racism, racketeering and raiding" of the AFL.[8]

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.[12] Meany's "greatest achievement",[13] the new federation had 15 million members, while two million U.S. workers were members of unions outside the AFL-CIO.[11]

Campaign against corruption in the Teamsters Union and other unions[edit]

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[7] on December 6, 1957. Meany supported the AFL-CIO's adoption of a code of ethics in the wake of the scandal.[14]

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 was willing to demand the firing of corrupt union leaders and internal reorganization of the unions. When some unions resisted, he organized their ouster from the AFL and later from the AFL-CIO, and even set up rival unions.[1] He set up an AFL-CIO Committee on Ethical Practices to investigate misconduct and insisted that unions under investigation cooperate 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."[1]

Democratic economic planning[edit]

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".[15] 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"[15] 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,"[4] pointing out that "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."[4]

Legislative agenda[edit]

As AFL-CIO president, Meany was an advocate for raising the minimum wage, increased public works spending, and protection of union organizing rights. He also supported universal health care. He backed the two party system, and believed in "supporting your friends and punishing your enemies."[4]

Vietnam war[edit]

Meany defended the stated goals of President 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.[16]

In 1966, Meany insisted that AFL-CIO unions 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. [17]

Charles Cogen, president of the American Federation of Teachers opposed Meany in 1967 when the AFL-CIO convention adopted a resolution stating "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'".[18] In his speech to the convention, Meany said that, in Vietnam the AFL-CIO was "neither hawk nor dove nor chicken",[16][19] but was supporting "brother trade unionists" struggling against Communism.[16]

Meany's support for the Vietnam war effort continued even in the final days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in April, 1975. He called for President Gerald Ford to provide a U.S. Navy "flotilla" if needed to ensure that hundreds of thousands of "friends of the United States" could escape before a Communist regime could be established.[20] 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 forces, damaging their "will to fight".[20] In particular, Congress had failed to provide adequate funding for U.S. troops to stage an orderly withdrawal, Meany stated.[20]

Civil rights movement and conflict with Walter Reuther[edit]

Despite their cooperation in the AFL-CIO merger, Meany and Walter Reuther had a contentious relationship for many years.[21] 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, who was the titular leader of the march. The AFL-CIO endorsed a civil-rights law and allowed individual unions to endorse the march.[8] However, when George Meany heard 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. Speaking of Meany, Randolph commented "I have never doubted that he had the moral conviction that racial discrimination was wrong."[4]

Reuther resigned from the AFL-CIO executive council in February 1967.[8] 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.

Opposition to the New Left[edit]

Meany meeting with Richard Nixon in 1969

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 included many supporters of Communist movements, such as the Viet Cong. In the aftermath of the violence by anti-war demonstrators and police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Meany sided with the police, calling the protesters a "dirtynecked and dirty-mouthed group of kooks." [13] A cultural conservative, Meany ridiculed a proposal for same-sex marriage.[22][23]

1972 Presidential election[edit]

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".[24] 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.[25] 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[edit]

George Meany smoked his cigar, which also appears in the banner of the League for Industrial Democracy's "Tribute to George Meany"

President John F. Kennedy 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.[26] 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."[27]

Meany was well known as a cigar smoker,[8][28] and appeared twice on the cover of TIME magazine with a cigar in his mouth both times.[29][30] Meany stated that he had never walked a picket line,[6][8] explaining that his union never needed to form a picket line, because the employers made no attempt to replace the workers.[31]

Later years[edit]

By the mid-1970s, Meany was past his 80th birthday and there were increasing calls for him to retire and hand leadership of the AFL-CIO to a younger man.[32] In his final years, Meany took up amateur photography and painting as hobbies.[5]

Meany's wife of 59 years, Eugenia, died in March 1979, and he became ""despondent".[7] He injured his knee in a golfing mishap a few months before his death, and was confined to a wheelchair.[7] In November 1979, he resigned from the AFL-CIO after 57 years 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.[4] The AFL-CIO had 14 million members at time of death. President Jimmy Carter called him "an American institution" and "a patriot".[7] He was interred at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland.[33]


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.[34][35] Since 1987, 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.[35]

Plaque at George Meany Plaza in Jerusalem

George Meany Plaza was dedicated in Jerusalem in 1980. Among those attending the ceremony were AFL-CIO chief Lane Kirkland, Israeli Labor Party leader Shimon Peres and Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek.[36]

On the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1994,[37] Meany was pictured on a United States commemorative postage stamp.[38]

Also in 1994, Meany was featured on The Simpsons episode "Bart of Darkness." A black-and-white rerun of an old Krusty the Klown TV show features the clown in a business suit interviewing Meany.[39]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Hutchinson, John (Winter 1971). "George Meany and the Wayward". California Management Review (University of California, Berkeley) 14 (2): 51–60. Retrieved May 13, 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d Meagher, Timothy J. (2005). The Columbia Guide to Irish American History. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-12070-8. 
  3. ^ "An Interview with George Meany". Black Enterprise (New York City). June 1975. p. 106. Retrieved November 17, 2011. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Flint, Jerry (January 11, 1980). "George Meany Is Dead; Pioneer in Labor Was 85". New York Times. Retrieved April 19, 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c Stetson, Damon (1971). A Blunt Labor Leader: William George Meany. The New York Times Biographical Service. Volume 2. New York Times and Arno Press. p. 3637. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Zieger, Robert (1987). "George Meany: Labor's organization man". In Dubofsky, Melvyn; Van Tine, Warren R. Labor Leaders in America. University of Illinois Press. pp. 324–332. ISBN 978-0-252-01343-0. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Ullmann, Owen (January 11, 1980). "George Meany, Labor's 'Giant' Is Dead at 85". Nashua Telegraph (Nashua, New Hampshire). p. 1. Retrieved October 23, 2011. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Lichtenstein, Nelson (1997). Walter Reuther: the most dangerous man in Detroit. University of Illinois Press. pp. 88, 323. ISBN 978-0-252-06626-9. 
  9. ^ "Murray, Green Deaths Likely To Bring New Era: Top Union Official Sights Possibility Of CIO-AFL Unification". Toledo Blade (Toledo, Ohio). November 22, 1952. p. 3. Retrieved October 23, 2011. 
  10. ^ "Mr. Meany And Merger". Toledo Blade. November 28, 1952. Retrieved November 6, 2011. 
  11. ^ a b c d "New Affluence, Unity for Labor". LIFE magazine. December 12, 1955. Retrieved November 6, 2011. 
  12. ^ Walker, Norman (November 28, 1955). "Meany And AFL-CIO Merger: A Plumber's Dream". Meriden Journal (Meriden, Connecticut). Retrieved November 6, 2011. 
  13. ^ a b "Labor's Voice is Stilled, George Meany: 1894-1980". Time. January 21, 1980. Retrieved May 13, 2015. 
  14. ^ Cherny, Robert W.; Issel, William and Taylor, Kieran Walsh (2004). American labor and the Cold War: grassroots politics and postwar political culture. Rutgers University Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-8135-3403-9. 
  15. ^ a b Boyle, Kevin (1999). The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945–1968. Cornell University Press. p. 201. ISBN 978-0-8014-8538-1. 
  16. ^ a b c "Meany Backs Viet, Slaps at Reuther: Neither 'Hawk, Dove—Nor Chicken' AFL-Boss Says In Convention Keynote". Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). December 7, 1967. Retrieved October 23, 2011. 
  17. ^ "George Meany's on the Spot For Loyalty to the President". Miami News (Miami). February 13, 1966. pp. 18A. Retrieved October 23, 2011. 
  18. ^ "AFL-CIO Backs LBJ on Vietnam". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). December 12, 1967. Retrieved October 23, 2011. 
  19. ^ Dumbrell, John (1990). The making of US foreign policy: American democracy and American foreign policy. Manchester University Press. p. 199. ISBN 978-0-7190-3188-5. 
  20. ^ a b c Sperling Jr., Godfrey (April 14, 1975). "Meany urges massive U.S. effort to rescue endangered Vietnam". The Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pennsylvania). Retrieved October 23, 2011. 
  21. ^ Carew, Anthony (1993). Walter Reuther. Lives of the Left. Manchester University Press. p. 77. 
  22. ^ Sidey, Hugh (July 14, 1972). "The human side of discord". LIFE magazine (New York City). Retrieved October 23, 2011. 
  23. ^ Horowitz, Rachelle (2007) [2005], "Tom Kahn and the fight for democracy: A political portrait and personal recollection" (PDF), Democratiya (merged with Dissent in 2009), 11 (Winter): 204–251 
  24. ^ "Meany hits McGovern as red apologist". Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee). September 4, 1972. Retrieved October 23, 2011. 
  25. ^ "Meany's observations". Boca Raton News (Boca Raton, Florida). November 9, 1972. pp. 4a. Retrieved October 23, 2011. 
  26. ^ "Presidential Medal of Freedom". John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Retrieved November 19, 2011. 
  27. ^ "Lyndon B. Johnson: Remarks With Under Secretary of State George W. Ball at the Presentation of the Medal of Freedom Awards, December 6, 1963". The American Presidency Project, University of California, Santa Barbara. Retrieved November 19, 2011. 
  28. ^ Sidey, Hugh (November 19, 1971). "For George Meany, life begins at 77". LIFE magazine (New York City). Retrieved November 15, 2011. 
  29. ^ "A.f.l.'s george meany". TIME (New York City). March 21, 1955. Retrieved November 15, 2011. 
  30. ^ "Labor in the Freeze: George Meany". TIME (New York City). September 6, 1971. Retrieved November 15, 2011. 
  31. ^ Robinson, Archie; Meany, George (1981). George Meany and His Times: A Biography. Simon and Schuster. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-671-42163-2. 
  32. ^ Dobkin, Robert A. (September 8, 1977). "Union power passing to young, better educated generation". Deseret News (Salt Lake City). Retrieved June 15, 2013. 
  33. ^ Bredemeier, Kenneth (January 16, 1980). "Labor, Politicians Eulogize Meany". The Washington Post. 
  34. ^ The Meany Center was renamed as the National Labor College in 1997 by AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. It was renamed the George Meany Center for Labor Studies—the National Labor College (GMC-NLC) in 2000 and then the National Labor College-George Meany Campus in 2004.
  35. ^ a b "Campus History". National Labor College. 2011. Retrieved 20 November 2011. 
  36. ^ "In Israel". The Ironworker (International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers). 1980. 
  37. ^ Kronish, Syd (August 29, 1994). "Stamp Honors Labor Leader Meany on 100th Birthday". Deseret News (Salt Lake City). Retrieved November 15, 2011. 
  38. ^ Sine, Richard L.; Galpin, Jonathan. "Commemorative issue: George Meany". U.S. Stamp Gallery. Retrieved November 15, 2011. 
  39. ^ Alberti, John; Arnold, David L.G. (2004). Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. p. 12. ISBN 0814328490. 

External links[edit]

Business positions
Preceded by
William Green
AFL President
Merged into AFL-CIO
New title
AFL-CIO founded
AFL-CIO President
Succeeded by
Lane Kirkland