Working on my next book today, I stumbled across this New York Times article from 1979 on the fresh new look Lane Kirkland was going to bring to the AFL-CIO. That turned out well!
Four weeks ago, Kirkland was back at the White House, announcing a turnaround, a triumph for the labor team that had eluded Meany himself the year before. It was a “national accord” with President Carter that came closer to making labor a partner in determining national economic policy than anything ever negotiated in this country, even in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Kirkland made his trip to the White House just after learning that he would almost surely be elected president of the A.F.L.‐C.I.O. at the federation’s biennial convention in Washington to be held in mid‐November. Meany, now 85 and ailing, had made it clear to Kirkland, whom he designated his heir apparent by promoting him to the number two job in 1969, that the convention would mark the end of his own quartercentury reign as “Mister Labor.” Over
A.H. Raskin, for many years chief labor correspondent and columnist for The New York Times, is now associate director of the National News Council. the last 25 years, the former plumber from the Bronx had established himself as the living symbol of the union move- ment. Kirkland’s only rival for the post, J. C. Turner of the Operating Engi- neers, who had planned to run as an up- from-the-ranks mechanic, pulled out of the race after Meany told him he thought Kirkland had proved his right to the job.
Once Meany’s protective arm is re- moved, how successful will the gentle- voiced egghead be in shoring up labor’s sagging public image? Will he be able to still the power drives of restless re- formers in a movement long wedded to the tradition that the only worthwhile training grounds for union leaders are the shop floor and the picket line?
Kirkland, who trained in college for a diplomatic career and served his union apprenticeship at a researcher’s desk in federation headquarters, will not lack for early tests, inside and outside the movement. Labor’s ark is leaking. Only one worker out of four in the non- farm work force now belongs to a union. When all wage earners are counted, the ratio drops to one out of five. The union heartland in the North- east and Middle West is losing facto- ries, offices and jobs to the “right-to- work” states of the Sun Belt. Low‐wage sanctuaries in the Far East and Latin America are swallowing up tens of thousands of American union jobs.
There are no easy answers for those problems, in 1979 or 2017. But then Kirkland never really tried to come up with any either.