The Magazine

Lane's Labor's Lost

Lane Kirkland and the decline of the AFL-CIO.

Apr 11, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 28 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
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Lane Kirkland

Champion of American Labor

by Arch Puddington

Wiley, 342 pp., $30

THIS IS AN AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY, which, to cite the words of Samuel Johnson, means "in lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath." Arch Puddington has written a "lapidary" biography of a man who, in my opinion, was miscast as a labor leader when what he really wanted to be was a Democratic politician.

I would go even further: Had the personable, highly intelligent Kirkland entered the political arena, his career would have been far more impressive, and might even have propelled him to far greater heights than he ever achieved through the rough-and-tumble of labor politics. For when Kirkland took over the AFL-CIO presidency in 1979, as successor to the ailing George Meany, he was taking over an institution in a state of serious and irreversible decline in membership and influence. And the decline hasn't stopped.

As Puddington writes about the present AFL-CIO: "The American labor movement today is smaller, less influential and more narrowly focused than it was under Kirkland. Labor today is more marginal and less respected than at any time since the 1920s."

The average membership of unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO in 2004 totaled 12,951,461, a net decrease of 167,775 members since 2003. Union membership fell from 34 percent of the labor force in 1955 to 20 percent in 1979 to about 13 percent today. Most AFL-CIO members today are not industrial workers but federal, state, or local government employees. And the Reagan Democrat (aka the Tory worker) is no longer the spectacular phenomenon he once was. He is now a permanent fixture in American politics, as John Kerry discovered to his sorrow last November.

Whatever his failings to enhance labor's influence on the nation's domestic agenda, there is one area where the labor movement under Kirkland made an invaluable contribution: the battle against communism. Kirkland's contribution to the fight against communism and the Soviet Union cannot be overestimated. He was a leader in a long war that had begun in the earliest days of the Bolshevik revolution, when Communists in this country tried to fulfill Lenin's injunction: "It is necessary to . . . agree to any and every sacrifice, and even . . . if need be to resort to all sorts of stratagems, manoeuvres and illegal methods, to evasion and subterfuges, in order to penetrate the trade unions, to remain in them, and to carry on Communist work in them at all costs."

Thanks to the arrogance of John L. Lewis, head of the CIO, the Communists in the 1940s were successful in their penetration strategy, so much so that they even wrote the resolutions of the annual CIO conventions. When fellow unionists questioned his pro-Communist direction, Lewis growled, "Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?" To his chagrin, when his Communist supporters in the fall of 1941 turned against the isolationist Lewis, he got his answer. He was forced to resign. At one point one-quarter of the CIO executive board were either Communist party members or under CP discipline. Nothing so scandalous ever occurred in the AFL.

When Kirkland took over as AFL-CIO president, the battle against domestic communism had long been won. But there was still a Soviet Union, the sworn enemy of free trade unionism. Kirkland's political war against international communism and an anti-anti-Communist Western Europe showed his talented leadership. It was Kirkland's finest hour. He made it his first order of business in the field of labor internationalism to lend unstinting support to the defiant Polish trade union organization, Solidarity, led by the redoubtable Lech Walesa.

Puddington's narrative of Kirkland's involvement with Solidarity is absolutely riveting. It is documented history, a transcendent and, until now, little-known achievement by American labor leadership in helping to win the Cold War. Would that Kirkland had shown similar talent on the domestic political scene. Would that he had followed the 1908 injunction of Samuel Gompers, the founder of the AFL, to "reward your friends and punish your enemies"--regardless of their party affiliation.

Kirkland's anti-communism had its limitations because he never knew a Democrat he didn't like, nor found a Republican he could support. In the 1980 election, Kirkland did not support Ronald Reagan, the onetime president of the AFL-CIO Screen Actors Guild, a man with unblemished anti-Communist and union credentials. Instead, he endorsed the bumbling, ineffectual Jimmy Carter, who would admonish the American people to free themselves from their "inordinate fear of communism." (Had Jimmy Carter been reelected in 1980, there would still, in my opinion, be a Soviet Union.)