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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 259

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This is the grave of Lane Kirkland.

Born in 1922 in Camden, South Carolina, Kirkland entered the Merchant Marine Academy in 1942 and served as a deck officer on merchant ships during the war. Upon its conclusion, he wanted to become an intelligence officer and got a BS in the foreign service school at Georgetown. But he got a job with the American Federation of Labor’s research department and that became his career. He started out working on pensions and Social Security and became a speech writer on loan for Alben Barkley in the 1948 presidential campaign and then Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. He became research director for the International Union of Operating Engineers in 1958 and then AFL-CIO director George Meany’s executive assistant in 1960. He became Secretary-Treasurer of the federation in 1969, the #2 position in the AFL-CIO and the heir apparent to the throne. He loved killing the Vietnamese and hated George McGovern for opposing the Vietnam War, thus playing a key role in the AFL-CIO refusing to endorse the Democrat in 1972.

Kirkland was a weird choice for a high-ranking union official. For one, he didn’t come from a working class background. He had never been on strike. He had high-falutin’ tastes such as modern art and hieroglyphics. He didn’t fit the stereotype. He was a corporate guy. And for where the labor movement wanted to be in the 1970s, that made sense. Unfortunately, it was very much not where the labor movement needed to be. Kirkland became AFL-CIO executive director in 1979 after George Meany retired. He held that position for 16 years. Those years saw the collapse of the labor movement. One way to think about this is that his term nearly started with the air traffic controllers being fired by Reagan and nearly ended with NAFTA. And that was the Kirkland years, one disaster after another. He wasn’t a bad guy. But he had no answers to the new challenges labor faced. He had nothing to offer against globalization, nothing to offer against outsourcing, nothing to offer against the harsh new union-busting of the government and private employers. Maybe no one could have fixed these problems, but Kirkland was certainly the wrong man at the wrong time. When he took office, 24 percent of American workers were in unions. When he left, it was 15.5 percent. It’s continued to fall since then, but whereas today, it’s probably too late to stem the tide, that wasn’t necessarily the case in 1979.

Kirkland had specific issues that were also a problem. Like Meany, Kirkland was extremely concerned with anti-communism. So he put a ton of resources into supporting Polish solidarity. That’s fine and all, but he was really more concerned about it than developing a good response to American unionbusting. He earned Henry Kissinger’s respect at least, which every good union leader needs…. This wasn’t just a passing fancy. He spoke out for instance against Jimmy Carter’s detente policies. Kirkland was also terrible with the media, with relations with other union leaders, and terrible at lobbying. When Congress was debating a bill to ban permanent replacement workers, Kirkland was gallivanting around Europe. He had the federation spend more money on foreign policy than organizing. And as a southerner through and through, he routinely referred to the Civil War as “the war of northern aggression,” which surely really helped unions organize African-Americans. Basically, Lane Kirkland was terrible at his job.

In 1995, Kirkland finally saw the writing on the wall and chose not to run for reelection rather than be forced out. This had never happened in the American labor movement before. Somewhat ironically, the movement to replace him was initially led by Thomas Donahue, but when he himself became the defender of old-time staid values, John Sweeney’s New Voice platform defeated him. Sweeney pledged to invest far more in organizing, and he and the rest of the unions did, but it was really too little, too late.

Lane Kirkland died in 1999 of cancer. He never forgave the rest of labor for turning their back on him.

Lane Kirland is buried with his second wife on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit more labor leaders of questionable quality, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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