By William Serrin
August 15, 1999
Lane Kirkland, who was president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
from 1979 to 1995, a troubled period for American workers, and
who resigned after an angry revolt of union presidents, died yesterday
morning at his home in Washington. He was 77.
The cause of death was lung cancer, said
his wife, Irena Kirkland.
Together, Kirkland and George Meany, his
predecessor as president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and his longtime
friend and mentor, led the American labor movement for nearly
45 years. While Kirkland was serving almost 16 years
as president of the labor federation, the American economy and
the workplace experienced drastic change. Plants closed,
jobs were lost, union membership shrank and union importance diminished.
The growing concern for labor's future in the United States, which
contributed to Kirkland's downfall, contrasted with its relatively
powerful influence abroad, an influence that Kirkland helped to
Kirkland was an ardent anti-Communist who
was proud of his organization's efforts to assist the Solidarity
movement in bringing democracy to Poland by any means
it could. During the 1970's and 80's, he worked tirelessly to
help Solidarity topple the Communist government, surreptitiously
channeling organization money and fax machines to the movement
led by Lech Walesa. "The success of Solidarity owes a lot
to Lane," said Henry A. Kissinger, a close friend of Kirkland. "He
supported it with funds and organizers, and he had a big effect
on American policy makers." But leaders of several big unions forced
him from office, saying that he lacked the same intense interest
when it came to energizing American workers and winning
them over to trade unionism. Although the A.F.L.-C.I.O. has become more
vigorous since Kirkland's resignation, it remains unclear whether
the American labor movement can ever recapture
its former power. When Kirkland assumed office, 24 percent of
the workers in the United States belonged to unions. When he resigned,
the figure was 15.5 percent. Today, it is 13.9 percent.
Joseph Lane Kirkland -- everyone called him
Lane -- was born on March 12, 1922, in Camden, S.C., the son
of Randolph Withers Kirkland, a cotton buyer, and the
former Louise Richardson. A great-great-grandfather, Thomas
Jefferson Withers, had signed the Confederate declaration
of secession, and Kirkland often referred to the Civil
War as the "War of Northern Aggression."
Kirkland was raised in Newberry, S.C., where
he attended public schools, and where many of his classmates
were sons and daughters of mill workers. "They'd leave school
to work in the mills, and conditions were rather bad," he
once told The Washington Post. "If they'd fire a guy, he'd
lose his house; he'd lose everything. There's no better way to
get an education in becoming liberal than to be exposed to those
sorts of things."
Before the United States entered World War
II, Kirkland unsuccessfully tried to join the Canadian
military. In 1940, he became a cadet on the S.S. Liberator,
a merchant marine ship. The following year, he entered the
United States Merchant Marine Academy. Upon graduation in 1942,
he served as a chief mate aboard American ships transporting war
matériel, sailing to South America, the beachheads at Sicily
and Anzio, and the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. Since then,
he kept his membership in the Masters, Mates, and Pilots Union.
After the war, Kirkland entered the School
of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, graduating in 1948.
He then worked as a researcher with the American Federation of
Labor, becoming a specialist on pensions and Social
Security. A skilled writer, he was on loan in 1948 to the Democratic
Party to write speeches for Alben W. Barkley, President Harry
S. Truman's running mate. In 1952 and 1956 he wrote campaign speeches
for Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic Presidential candidate.
He always impressed Meany, who had become
president of theA.F.L. in 1952 and of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. in
1955 when the labor federation merged with the Congress of Industrial
In 1958, Kirkland became director of research
and education for the International Union of Operating
Engineers, but in 1960 he returned to the labor federation
as Meany's executive assistant. He directed the organization's
daily operations and often represented it on Capitol Hill and
at the White House. Always seeking accommodation, he helped resolve
jurisdictional disputes among the federation's unions -- then
a difficult problem in labor -- and helped to settle the mass-transit
strike in New York City in 1966. He pushed strongly for a fair
employment practices provision in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In May 1969, Meany selected Kirkland to be
secretary-treasurer, the No. 2 position in the organization. His
opposition to the policies of the Nixon Administration earned
him a place on the President's notorious "enemieslist."
Kirkland continued his intense interest in
international affairs, maintaining that they were too important
to be left to "a tight incestuous breed of economists and
diplomats." He strongly supported American involvement in
the Vietnam War and was instrumental in the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s refusal
to support Senator George S. McGovern as the Democratic candidate
for President in 1972. In 1976 he was a founder of the Committee
on the Present Danger, which demanded larger military budgets
to confront the Soviet Union.
In the 1970's, as Meany's health declined,
Kirkland often ran the labor organization. In September 1979,
Meany, then 85, announced his retirement, and in November
Kirkland was named president even though he remained remote to
many union members.
In his acceptance speech Kirkland set a tone
for his administration, making clear, in his tart
manner, the importance that he placed on getting nonaffiliated
unions to join the A.F.L.-C.I.O. He said "all
sinners belong in the church" and unaffiliated unions should
renounce "petty personal or pecuniary considerations, or
ancient and tedious grudges." He regarded as his biggest
achievement persuading the auto workers, the mine workers, the
longshoremen and warehousemen, and the teamsters to join or rejoin
Kirkland was proud of other changes under
his leadership. He placed the first woman on the labor organization's
executive council and increased the participation of
blacks and Hispanics. He agreed to establish an institute
to train new organizers. He also continued the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s
vast foreign operations in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia.
But huge problems emerged with his leadership.
Kirkland was, as is said in the garment trades,
an inside guy, not an outside guy. He often seemed detached, sometimes
arrogant, incapable of banter or pleasantries. He was given to
withering ripostes, and seemed to detest the news media, often
refusing interviews and requests to appear on television, even
on Labor Day, saying he found it demeaning. He said reporters
should periodically be condemned to their morgues to read their
clippings, an exercise he believed would show the shallowness
and inaccuracy of much of journalism.
Critics said that Kirkland spent too much
time on international affairs and not enough time
on domestic concerns and that he linked American labor too frequently
with conservative unions in foreign countries. They also maintained
that in its foreign policy, Kirkland's organization too often
allied itself with American corporations. In 1993, when Congress
debated a bill to ban permanent replacement workers, Kirkland
was in Europe. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. spent more money on international
affairs than on organizing, civil rights and workers' health and
At the same time, fundamental change was occurring in the American economy. In the 1980's, one industrial plant after another closed, and whole communities were in distress. The service economy, with little union organization, expanded.
Jobs were lost to new processes and foreign competition.
Strike after strike was lost, including one
by the air traffic controllers in 1981, and labor suffered numerous
defeats in Congress, including its failure in 1993 to block passage
of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which unions opposed
because of a concern over losing jobs in the United States. In
1994, Republicans won control of the House and the Senate for
the first time in four decades.
Through all of this, organized labor failed
to expand its membership, and Kirkland's critics in the union
movement said he lacked the vision to reverse the slide.
In early 1995, an open revolt broke out,
a remarkable event for labor unions, whose culture stresses
loyalty, discipline and the private settlement of problems. Not
since John L. Lewis and others left the A.F.L. in 1935
to form what became the C.I.O. had such a raucous, public fight
occurred in American unionism.
The revolt was led by Gerald McEntee, president
of the municipal workers; John J. Sweeney, then
president of service employees; Richard Trumka, then president
of the mine workers; and Ronald Carey, then president of the teamsters.
McEntee doggedly engaged Kirkland in debates.
Union leaders, acting anonymously, condemned Kirkland in
statements to reporters and he was criticized at a February 1995
executive council meeting in Bal Harbour, Fla.
Sweeney twice asked Kirkland to retire. He
knew that President Clinton had offered Kirkland the ambassadorship
to Poland, and he suggested that the union leader accept it and
make way for new leadership. But Kirkland, always a stubborn man,
refused to step aside.
In June that year, with presidents of some
20 unions opposing him, Kirkland said he would resign in August,
becoming the only president in the American Federation
of Labor's history to be forced to step down in this century.
Thomas R. Donahue, the A.F.L-C.I.O.'s secretary-treasurer, and
Kirkland's choice to be his successor, announced his candidacy
for the presidency. But in October, Sweeney, the leader of an
opposition slate, defeated Donahue.
After his resignation, Kirkland was rarely in the pubic eye.
He never forgot or forgave Sweeney and the
other insurrectionists, saying that they engaged in "mendacity
and falsehood." He said the labor movement had always had difficulties, given its many enemies, but
was built for "heavy weather." And he took pride in
the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, believing
that he and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. had helped bring it about.
Kirkland was also awarded the Presidential
Medal of Freedom.
Survivors include Kirkland's wife, the former
Irena Neumann, a German concentration camp survivor whom he married
in 1973, and five children from his first marriage, to Edith Draper
Hollyday, which ended in divorce in 1972.
The children are Blair Hollyday, Lucy Alexander,
Louise Richardson, Edith Hollyday and Katharine, all of whom live
in the Washington area.
He is also survived by five grandchildren
and two great grandchildren.
Kirkland had broad interests that included
gardening, gin rummy, wine, jazz, modern art, archeology and hieroglyphics.
He was a constant smoker, and a trademark, along with a sharp
tongue, was a long, yellowed holder with a burning cigarette.
In scores of articles about him over 20 years,
only one, in 1984 in The Washington Post, showed him at
ease. He was portrayed in his home, in Washington, playing "Amazing
Grace" on his Marine Band harmonica, in the manner of a sailor
at sea, with his dachshund Stanley howling in delighted accompaniment.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times