George Meany (1894 -1980) was one of America's most powerful labor leaders during the 20th century. He was president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) from 1955 to 1979.
George Meany was born on Aug. 16, 1894, in New York City. He inherited his dedication to the trade union movement from his father, who was president of a local plumbers' union. When George had to leave high school because of difficult family circumstances, he chose his father's trade. After a 5-year apprenticeship, he received his journeyman plumber's certificate in 1915.
In 1922 Meany was elected business agent of his union local. Although unionism did not thrive during the 1920s, Meany steadily broadened his activities within the building trades. President of the New York State Federation of Labor (1934-1939), he took advantage of the progressive mood of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal by helping enact more pro-labor bills and social reform measures than had previously been passed in the entire history of the New York Legislature. In 1939 Meany was elected secretary treasurer of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
During World War II Meany served on the War Labor Board and represented the AFL on Roosevelt's committee to draw up wartime labor policy. He also served on a special committee that the president regularly consulted on labor-management problems. After the war Meany helped establish the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which contributed to the success of the Marshall Plan for the rehabilitation of war-torn Europe.
In November 1952 Meany was chosen president of the AFL. Three years later he was unanimously elected president of the newly combined AFL-CIO at its first convention. He was consistently reelected without opposition.
Throughout his career Meany was interested in reform, both within the labor movement and society at large. He initiated the first major attacks on corruption in the unions and was responsible for establishing a code of ethical practices for all union affiliates. He also took important steps toward eliminating racial discrimination in the labor movement. Under Meany's leadership, the AFL-CIO vigorously supported the Occupational Safety and Health Act, designed to protect employees from dangerous work conditions. The act became law in 1970.
Meany put the full political force of the labor movement behind efforts to enact civil rights legislation. Without the trade union movement's support, none of the civil rights bills passed during the 1960s would have gone through Congress. The results of these bills testify to the persisting relevance of the labor movement and to Meany's social vision.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower twice appointed Meany a U.S. delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, and Meany received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963). George Meany died on January 10, 1980, at the age of 86.
Further Reading on George Meany
A chapter on Meany is included in Jack Barbash, ed., Unions and Union Leadership (1959), and some biographical information is in Thomas R. Brooks, Toil and Trouble: A History of American Labor (1964; rev. ed. 1971). See also Philip Taft, Organized Labor in American History (1964). Finke, Blythe F. George Meany: Modern Leader of the American Federation of Labor (1972)