On July 19, 1972, the AFL-CIO announced its decision not to endorse George McGovern for president. This astounding decision helped doom the already floundering McGovern campaign, helping to guarantee another victory for Richard Nixon. It also placed a permanent divide between non-labor progressives in the Democratic Party and the labor movement, one that still has not been fully bridged today. The story is actually more complicated than is usually stated, because in fact a lot of unions strongly supported McGovern.
For George Meany, George McGovern and his supporters were offensive on a number of levels. First, McGovern represented the Democratic Party in revolt, the hippies who protested inside the disastrous ’68 Chicago DNC. In the aftermath, with rules changes to the Democratic Party structure to make it more democratic, the power of the AFL-CIO leadership within the Party was challenged, even as there was room for more rank and file participation. But worse for Meany, McGovern didn’t support the Vietnam War. George Meany was a cold warrior’s cold warrior. He used his power as head of the federation to undermine socialism around the world and promote CIA activities, including, at the beginning of his tenure as AFL chief, supporting the overthrow of Guatemalan leader Jacobo Arbenz. Meany thought the Vietnam War was a righteous war. And that would make him hate McGovern.
There was another issue at play–the endless rivalry between Meany and the old CIO unions. Walter Reuther was dead by this time, but Meany and Reuther hated each other and what each stood for. Meany was highly concerned that the new social liberalism of the Democratic Party grassroots would empower the Reutherites both in the labor movement and in society as a whole. So undermining the social democratic unions in a new grassroots oriented Democratic Party was also on his mind.
George McGovern had a reasonably strong background in labor. He wrote his first book on the Colorado coal wars that culminated in the Ludlow Massacre. But McGovern’s record was not perfect, and that included on some of the most important labor legislation of his term. First, while in Congress, he voted for the Landrum-Griffin Act. Second, in 1966, he voted against the repeal of Section 14(b) the Taft-Hartley Act. The latter especially is pretty bad. That’s the provision that allows states to enact right to work legislation. Yet in the end, COPE, which was the AFL-CIO political arm, noted that McGovern voted with labor 93.5% of the time, about the same as Ed Muskie, if less than Hubert Humphrey, who was an outstanding supporter of unions. In any case, it wasn’t a record that should have lead to the AFL-CIO ditching him once he had won the domination. One can argue, as Jefferson Cowie has in Staying Alive, that the vote to overturn 14(b) would have hurt him in South Dakota where such a vote would have no support. Possibly, although I think Cowie, is excusing McGovern’s vote here to make a point against Meany. But, to his credit, McGovern openly said that if elected, he would fight to overturn 14(b). And as Cowie also points out, Meany’s good friend Lyndon Johnson had voted for Taft-Hartley in the first place so this was all a frame job against McGovern, a fair enough charge. And in any case, McGovern’s labor record was a hell of a lot better than Richard Nixon’s.
So Meany went to work on the AFL-CIO to not endorse McGovern. That wasn’t all that hard, really. First, Meany himself supported Nixon. Second, a lot of the building trades also supported Nixon. That didn’t mean that the federation was going to endorse Nixon; far from it. But it did mean neutrality, which was a huge and very public blow to McGovern. At the AFL-CIO convention a week before the announcement, Meany worked openly to achieve this result. Even before it was made official on July 19, the newspapers were filled with articles that this was going to happen. And in fact, Meany ruled the day, with the neutrality vote passing 27-3 in the AFL-CIO executive council.
Interestingly, McGovern’s second choice for the vice-presidential candidate, after Ted Kennedy, was United Auto Workers president Leonard Woodcock. By this time, the UAW had withdrawn from the AFL-CIO, taken out by Reuther in 1968 over Vietnam and a variety of other policies. So it’s far from clear that had Woodcock accepted whether this would have done anything more than infuriate Meany. But while Woodcock was interested, there was a lot of feeling within the UAW that this was inappropriate for a union head and he declined.
There was significant discontent within the labor movement over Meany’s tactics. A lot of unions, especially the industrial unions, were furious with him over it. They thought McGovern would be great and fully supported him. The United Auto Workers, the International Association of Machinists, AFSCME, and a lot of less powerful unions like the International Woodworkers of America fought hard for McGovern. Thirty-three unions, representing a majority of unionized workers in the United States, ultimately officially endorsed McGovern.
McGovern also visited that site of 1972 rebellion against both corporations and staid union leaders, Lordstown, Ohio, where his genial rebellion was received very positively with the young rank and file UAW members rebelling against the boredom of their jobs and what they saw as staid union leadership. But it was all too little by far and of course McGovern was crushed that fall.
Unfortunately, this complexity within the labor movement over the McGovern decision gets lost in a general narrative that between Meany’s support for Vietnam, his hatred of McGovern, and a couple of isolated incidents where “hardhats beat hippies,” labor cannot be trusted by other progressives. It’s a cherry picking narrative that is really problematic and needs severe revision. Those incidents are true enough and George Meany was terrible, not only for what he did to McGovern, but to the labor movement as a whole, but that doesn’t mean that labor itself can’t be trusted because of some actions over 40 years ago. Rather, it means that organized labor has had some terrible leadership over the years, but that the union movement has always included some forward-thinking people who have done a great deal of good for social and economic justice everywhere. And that’s should be a lot more important today that George Meany’s call in the presidential election of 1972.
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