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George Meany: from Bronx plumber to AFL-CIO giant

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By L.A. O’Donnell

Recollections of George Meany and his times have grown dim. Nineteen years have passed since his death. Those who do remember him are inclined to think of an ill-tempered old man leaning on his cane. This is a seriously incomplete and misleading image of an Irish-American who ably headed the AFL-CIO for a generation and whose contributions to labor reform were substantial.

Family origins

A native New Yorker, George Meany was born on Aug. 16, 1894 at 125th Street and Madison Avenue in Lower Harlem. He was one of six surviving children of the 10 born to Michael Joseph Meany and Anne Cullen Meany. His Meany grandparents emigrated from County Westmeath in 1853 in the aftermath of the Great Famine. In the same year his grandfather Cullen came over from County Longford.

Meany was acutely aware of his Irish ancestry and acknowledged it in a speech before the American-Irish Historical Society, which honored him with its gold medal on Nov. 20, 1976. "The yearning for freedom — the insistence on human dignity — are forever enshrined as part of the Irish character," he said on the occasion. "Similarly, they are the wellspring of the American trade union movement." He pointed out that flair for language and affection for the spoken word were instrumental in the Irish rise to labor leadership in America, but believed they were inspired by "the deep, centuries-old indignation which injustice stirred in them."

Indeed, George Meany was reared in an atmosphere where trade unionism and Ireland’s struggle for freedom were matters of daily conversation. His father was a plumber and presided over Plumbers Local Two in the Bronx, where the family moved in 1899. Meany remembered Sundays when his father conducted union business in the parlor with fellow activists in their home at 133rd Street and Southern Boulevard. Young George acquired his lifelong Bronx accent in this period. The Irish flavor of Saint Luke’s Parish, which the family attended, was important in his experience. At a parish dance he met Eugenie McMahon, his future wife. She was a member of the garment workers’ union (ILGWU) at the time.

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Education and work

As a lad, the future AFL-CIO president was vigorous, athletic and intelligent. A member of the baseball team in Port Morris High School, he played (usually as catcher) in the semi-pro leagues after dropping out at age 14. He helped provide for the family as a delivery boy for bakery goods, racetrack results for saloons — and messenger for George Batten Company (an advertising firm that later became Batten, Barton, Durston & Osborn).

At length Meany was enrolled as an apprentice plumber — against his father’s wishes. He was 16 and would become a journeyman in 1917, the year after his father died of a heart attack, and the same year his only brother, John, enlisted in the army shortly after America’s entry into World War I. Support for the family of four sisters, his mother and Grandfather Cullen thus rested on the shoulders of George Meany. After a courtship of extended length due to his family obligation, he wed Eugenie McMahon on Nov. 26, 1919. A solid Irish-Catholic marriage, it lasted until her death in March of 1979, less than a year before her husband’s passing. Success of their marriage was bolstered by excluding all union business from being transacted in their home, a commitment made at the behest of Mrs. Meany. The couple had three daughters.

Union official

As a working plumber, Meany was by no means without ambition. After election to the executive board of his local union in 1920 — mainly he said, due to being the son of Michael Meany — young George capitalized on opportunities that arose. He was bright, blessed with an excellent memory and impressive analytical ability, but also unquestionably honest. In 1922 he stood for election as business agent of his local and won. Proving to be competent and even-handed, he was chosen as secretary of a new building trades council, established to replace the existing one rocked by scandal. His office with that organization involved dealing with jurisdictional disputes, endemic to the building trades. He performed capably in this demanding responsibility.

In 1932, the New York Labor Council for all AFL unions in the city elected him to its executive board. He proceeded to enlist the building trades council, which had not previously been affiliated. Recognized for his ability, he won a seat to the board of the New York State Federation of Labor. He aspired to leadership of the NYSFL and campaigned for its presidency twice, winning it in 1934 in a campaign he himself ably orchestrated.

Effective lobbyist

For five years beginning in 1934, he demonstrated how effective a lobbyist for labor issues in Albany could be. He was credited with shepherding 72 bills advantageous for labor through the legislature and office of governor. Among them was a pioneer unemployment-insurance law. In its passage, his ability to reduce this complex issue to its essential elements in testimony before legislators was crucial. Also included in his successful efforts were passage of health and safety laws for employees and workmen’s compensation legislation.

Meany developed a mutually beneficial relationship with Democratic Gov. Herbert H. Lehman and became a friend of Republican Fiorello LaGuardia, whom he supported for mayor. Franklin Roosevelt also obtained his support, but Meany fought the New Deal over the issue of prevailing wages (union scale) for craftsmen employed under the Works Progress Administration — even calling a strike against the federal government in one instance.

His impressive accomplishments in Albany persuaded Teamster President Daniel Tobin and other national union leaders that Meany should succeed Frank Morrison as secretary-treasurer of the AFL. Morrison, 79, reluctantly accepted a pension. The October 1939 convention in Cincinnati elected Meany by acclamation. William Green, who succeeded Samuel Gompers as AFL president in 1924, frustrated Meany’s hope to lobby before Congress. His outlook, however, improved when asked to serve on the tri-partite War Labor Board during World War II. Meany’s was the most effective voice on labor’s behalf.

International relations absorbed Meany’s energies in the post-war period. Counseled by former communist Jay Lovestone, he fought communist influence. He denounced the World Federation of Trade Unions and in 1945 kept the AFL from joining it — convinced that affiliated unions from the Soviet Union were mere tools of the communist government. Passage of the Marshall Plan for European recovery was one of his urgent goals.

Dismay at labor’s inability to defeat enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) convinced him to establish Labor’s League for Political Education to provide greater impact. LLPE played a role in Harry Truman’s victory in 1948. The previous year, Meany had dared to challenge the ever-intimidating John L. Lewis for hiring communists as organizers for the CIO in the 1930s. During the Korean War, at Meany’s insistence, President Truman gave labor effective representation on the Defense Mobilization program.

Raising labor’s voice

Assuming greater responsibility as Green’s health began to decline in the late 1940s, Meany was the logical successor when the AFL president died in November of 1952. As head of the AFL he vigorously campaigned for merger with the CIO. It was achieved in 1955 with a plan recommended by Arthur Goldberg. Elected president of the AFL-CIO in the same year, he retained that position until retiring in November of 1979. He held the organization together despite conflicts between the building trades unions and the former CIO (industrial) unions.

Under Meany, the AFL-CIO normally endorsed the Democratic candidate for president with the exception of George McGovern, whose liberalism was beyond what Meany could abide. The AFL-CIO leader had the ear of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and, to a lesser extent, Carter. The aging cold warrior defended intervention in Vietnam far beyond when it became unpopular, but eventually confessed it was a mistake in an interview with Dick Cavett. He opposed Nixon’s initiative with China and held tenaciously to that view.

George Meany traveled a long road beyond his original narrow craft-union outlook, and guided the organization he headed to a moderate progressive one in domestic affairs. It avoided the extreme radicalism of the 1960s and ’70s as well as the archconservatism of the Goldwater Republicans in the same period. The Meany-headed AFL-CIO championed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (especially its fair-employment provisions), Medicare in 1965, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and other pieces of social legislation.

George Meany was not about creating an attractive public image, as is the custom today. He was honest and outspoken, often blunt. He became old, smoked stogies. He was one of a kind and the likes of him may not be seen again. We are poorer for the loss. We should honor him on this last Labor Day before the new millennium.

(L.A. O’Donnell is the author of "Irish Voice and Organized Labor" [Greenwood Press].)

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