The labor movement in the U.S. is filled with figures of great consequence to the history of the U.S. One such individual was George Meany, who unified labor in the mid-twentieth century and, in so doing, created the largest amalgamation of union workers at the time, the AFL-CIO.
Born at the end of the 19th century in the Bronx, George Meany was the son of a plumber active in the trade union movement. He followed in his father’s profession, and, a few years after his father’s death, also became active in the plumber’s union local. He rose through the ranks of the movement, eventually becoming secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). He represented the AFL on the National War Labor Board and aligned against communists seeking to enter the U.S. labor movement through front organizations for the Soviet Union.
In the early 1950s, he rose to become president of the AFL. At the same time, another labor leader, Walter Reuther, from the auto workers, rose to become president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Meany began an effort to bring the two organizations together, and, after three years, the merger of the AFL-CIO was complete.
As the law was a driver of industrial relations, Meany recognized the importance of participation in the nation’s political process on behalf of the labor movement. He went on to establish policies to fight corruption in labor and support transparency. Further, programs on his watch became constituent parts of what would be the Civil Rights Act. In opining on the labor movement, Meany said:
Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours, and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor.
No blog can do justice to representing the life and complexities of such a significant force in the history of the last century, but if there is one take-away for us all, it is that Meany, to achieve progress, chose to work with his fellow Americans and within the unique American system. In that way, he exercised the civic duty that is the legacy from the Founders to us.
On this Labor Day holiday, we honor the heroic exercise of civic duty by essential workers during this pandemic. First responders, grocery workers; meat packers; postal workers, delivery people; construction crews; doctors, nurse, caregivers, and health professionals; teachers, medical researchers and developers; the list goes on. Their sublime service each day has maintained our national strength and will see us through to the point when this contagion is eradicated and beyond. To them, and to you and your families over this Labor Day holiday, we leave you with the reported closing remarks of this deeply religious man on his stepping down from the AFL-CIO:
To God … go my prayers of thanks for granting me more than one man’s share of happiness and rewards, and prayers for His continued blessing on this nation and on this movement and on each of you.
[Washington Post, Jan. 11, 1980.]