George Meany (1894-1980)
UNITED ASSOCIATION OF PLUMBERS AND PIPE FITTERSActive: 1910 – 1979
“Every piece of progressive social legislation passed by Congress in the 20th century bears a union label”
In sharp contrast with other contemporaries, Meany was a moderate labor leader – he never went to jail for union activity, never walked a picket line, and never led a strike. As the head of the AFL and then the AFL-CIO, his primary opponents were politicians.
George Meany has been described as “a burly cigar-smoking Irish Catholic plumber from the Bronx.” While the description paints a vivid picture of the man, it does little to capture the breadth of his life experiences. He did indeed begin his career as a plumber in the Bronx, but ended up leading a united American labor movement that was a major player on the world stage for nearly a quarter of a century.
He began his union career at sixteen, joining the local Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Union, of which his father was president, as an apprentice. Twelve years later he became a full-time business agent in the union and became active in the New York City Building Trades Council and the New York State Federation of Labor. In 1934 he was elected President of the New York State Federation where he was an active lobbyist, working to support 72 successful pieces of legislation, including a state unemployment insurance act that was passed prior to the national Social Security Act of 1935. Meany also successfully tangled with the Works Progress Administration, accusing them of underpaying employees and effectively undercutting union members. The WPA eventually raised wages to the building trades’ pay scale.
Meany became Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Labor in 1939 and began to move the AFL more deliberately into the political sphere. One catalyst was the passage of the Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act in 1947. which restricted the activities that labor unions could legally perform, ending sympathy strikes and closed shops among other activities. Even though he aggressively campaigned for the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, Meany was able to recognize the potential of a section of the Act allowing unions to collectively bargain for multiemployer pension plans. His office created and distributed materials explaining how to bargain for and set up multiemployer pension funds to help local unions across the country take advantage of the provision.
After AFL President William Green’s death in 1952, Meany became president and began negotiations with the newly elected president of the Congress of Industrial Organization, Walter Reuther, to combine their two organizations. In 1955, Meany and Ruther merged the two most powerful labor organizations in America, creating the modern AFL-CIO. Upon the merger, the AFL-CIO became the largest labor organization in the world, representing about 13 million union members and Meany became the first President of the new organization.
Meany was president of the AFL-CIO for twenty-four years, from 1955 to 1979. During that time the AFL-CIO became the “people’s lobby” and helped to pass the Equal Pay Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Social Security Amendments establishing Medicare and Medicaid. Meany also remained interested in the potential of union pension capital to make positive impacts, especially in the housing market, in keeping with the labor movement’s commitment to social justice. Prodded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Meany developed and outlined his vision of a new labor endeavor that would directly support housing creation and homeownership in a letter sent to all AFL-CIO affiliates. This eventually led to the creation of the AFL-CIO Mortgage Investment Trust, the forerunner to HIT-Advisers’ parent company, the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust. Meany retired from the AFL-CIO in 1979 at the age of 85.
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