16 August marks the birthday of George Meany, long time President of the AFL-CIO. Born in 1894, In Harlem, New York City, to Irish American parents, Meany would quit school at 16 to become a plumbers helper. In 1922 he had become a full time Business Agent for the Plumbers Union. In 1934, he became president of the New York State Federation of Labor. He developed a strong reputation for honesty and cultivated a successful relationship with the press.
In 1952, he became President of the American Federation of Labor. Over the next three years he negotiated the AFL’s merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to form the AFL-CIO. Not all Labor leaders were persuaded, Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa was among them, as was Meany’s fellow Irish-American Mike Quill of the Transport Workers, who decried what he described as the AFL’s “racism, racketeering and raiding”. Once the merger was complete, Meany was named President, and the feat landed him on the cover of TIME magazine.
Meany was a consistent campaigner to raise the minimum wage, increase public works spending, and establish universal health care, in addition to protecting and enhancing the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain. Meany retired in 1979 and died the following year. In 1994, a commemorative postage stamp was issued in his honor by the US Postal Service.
Meany’s long tenure embedded his image in the minds of many Americans as the face of Organized Labor. This is evidenced by Meany’s inclusion in an episode of ‘The Simpsons’ in which the character Bart is convalescing, and the only thing he can find to watch on TV is a re-run of an interview with Meany.
Below is a clip of Meany speaking to the National Press Club in the waning days of the Nixon Administration. This clip fully displays Meany’s distinctive New York accent, particularly when he says ‘working people’ and ‘experts’, the latter of which he spits out as if it were an expletive. It also illustrates his contempt for what he obviously deems to be showy and useless foreign policy initiatives while the people at home faced rising prices due to the inflation that marked the mid 1970’s.