November 24, 2015
By Bill Hohlfeld
November Labor History
On November 25th, 1952, George Meany, legend in the making, was elected president of the American Federation of Labor. He succeeded William Green. George was born and raised in the Bronx, and was a plumber by trade. He entered his apprenticeship in 1910 at the tender age of 16 (not all that uncommon in those days) and spent the next decade learning ,not only the intricacies of the trade, but also growing in political acumen.
By 1920 he had been elected the youngest member on record ever to be elected to his local’s executive board, and within two years he held the position of Business Agent. While holding that office, he dynamically represented his local at the New York City Central Labor Council. He was also an active participant in the New York State Federation of Labor, and by 1934 he had been elected president of that organization. By that time the nation had elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president, and the New Deal policies had begun to go into effect. Meany immediately saw the value to working class Americans and worked tirelessly to garner support for Roosevelt in the 1936 election.During this period he was also instrumental in having New York pass one of the first unemployment insurance laws in the country. In 1939, Meany began his career with the A.F.of L. by being elected secretary treasurer, which made him then President William Green’s right hand man.
One of the many duties for which he was responsible, was helping to form the War Labor Board. That entity caused union membership in the United States to hit unprecedented levels. Because of his deep commitment to worker solidarity, among his many concerns were the advancement of the Jewish Labor Committee, the safety of German trade unionists who were fleeing Nazi Germany, and fighting for the inclusion of workers’ rights language into the Marshall Plan of post war Europe. After the war he also established the Labor’s League for Political Education which was the forerunner of so many of today’s political action leagues. And, of course he campaigned vigorously and successfully for Harry Truman in the 1948 election. After his unanimous election as new President of the A.F. of L. after William Green’s death in 1952, he set about the task of bringing the AFL and CIO under one umbrella.
Again, he was successful and America had a unified labor movement. This ushered in America’s “golden age of labor” when more than 1 out of every 3 American workers was a union member. Throughout the 1960’s, a frequent guest of national radio and television programs, George Meany remained vocal about civil rights, the expansion of Medicare and worker education, most notably in the founding the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in Maryland, which has educated thousands of rank and file as well as elected union officials over the decades. A street smart tradesmen with a firm grasp of Keynesian economics, Meany was quoted in one of his many public appearances as having said the following:
- The wealth of America lies in the living standards of the people and business must have customers. You can’t destroy those customers by destroying their unions and have prosperous business.”
George Meany remained president of the AFL-CIO until his retirement in 1979. At that time, he handed over the reins to Lane Kirkland. A short, one year later he died. Ironically, his death came upon the eve of the “Reagan Revolution,” which set about to destroy so many of the things that George Meany held dear.