Joseph Lane Kirkland (born 1922) served as a leader in the American labor union movement for his entire career. He was also a political activist supporting civil rights, equal opportunities for women, and a strong defense.
Joseph Lane Kirkland was born in Camden, South Carolina, on March 12, 1922, the son of a local cotton buyer and a socially prominent mother. He was reared in Newberry, South Carolina, where he attended local schools with the children of the textile mill workers. His association with the mill hands' children, Kirkland later remembered, first stirred his social conscience. After graduation from high school in 1940 he tried to enlist in the Canadian air force. Rejected, he returned home to study for a year at Newberry College. In 1941 he joined the United States Merchant Marine, which sent him to study at the newly opened U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, from which he graduated in 1942. For the remainder of World War II Kirkland served as a chief mate aboard merchant ships.
Early Union Career
At the end of World War II he received a master's license and joined Local 688 of the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots. That was to be his only experience as a rank-and-file union member. In 1946 he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a cartographer for the Navy's Hydrographical Office. He studied evenings at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, from which he earned a B.S. in 1948. With his new degree in hand, Kirkland went to work in 1948 for the research staff of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and he remained thereafter a union official.
Because of his exceptional writing ability, Kirkland was assigned by the AFL to draft campaign speeches for Alben Barkley, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1948, and for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. When the AFL began to discuss merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1953, Kirkland caught the eye of George Meany, the newly-elected president of the AFL, who appointed the young official assistant director of the AFL's social security department, a position he held in the merged AFL-CIO until 1958. In 1958 Kirkland became director of research and education for the Operating Engineers' Union.
In 1960 he returned to the AFL-CIO to serve as Meany's executive assistant. As Meany's closest assistant, Kirkland supervised the AFL-CIO's daily operations, wrote key position papers, and lobbied the White House and Capitol Hill. He served as the labor organization's trouble shooter in difficult jurisdictional disputes and controversial strikes. By the late 1960s Kirkland was a leading advocate of labor-management cooperation and a member of the Institute of Collective Bargaining and Group Relations, a union-management-government association. At the same time he coordinated the AFL-CIO's civil rights campaign, led the battle against discrimination in union ranks, and fought for the inclusion of a fair employment clause in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He was an advocate of Lyndon B. Johnson's "war on poverty" and helped raise over $2 million for the A. Philip Randolph Institute's anti-ghetto programs.
The Heir Apparent Years
Kirkland's growing indispensability to Meany prompted the AFL-CIO president to push for his assistant's election as secretary treasurer in May 1969. As the second ranking officer in the labor federation, Kirkland became Meany's heir-apparent, a position he held for ten years. Or, as Kirkland phrased it, he was "the oldest, established, permanent, floating heir apparent in history." As such, he became more active in national politics and a leading critic of President Richard Nixon's wage-price controls, which earned Kirkland a place on the president's "enemies list." A firm believer in the reforms of the Democratic Party and the welfare state, Kirkland said, "We have no visionary world, no utopia that we're working toward. … We're interested in a more humane society in which everybody has his chance."
In foreign-policy Kirkland like his boss Meany was an ardent cold war warrior, convinced that the Soviet Union was the enemy. He fought the anti-Vietnam War elements in the Democratic Party, including George McGovern in the election of 1972, and was a founding member of the Committee on the Present Danger in 1976. Although he moderated his position late in the 1970s, endorsing SALT II and arms reduction negotiations, he still supported the MX missile and a strong defense.
Although he coordinated the AFL-CIO's political campaign for Jimmy Carter in 1976, he soon wondered whether labor's support of the ineffective new president had been "just another triumph of hope over experience." But in 1979 he was able to work out a national accord with the Carter administration in which the AFL-CIO promised wage restraint in return for protection of the poor, limits on corporate profits, and Carter's promise not to use unemployment to combat inflation. That same year—1979—Meany finally decided to retire and promote Kirkland into the presidency.
As president of the AFL-CIO Kirkland continued the organization's support of Democrats, endorsing Carter in 1980, criticizing the policies of Ronald Reagan and his administration as anti-labor, and maintaining a generally hardline foreign policy. But Kirkland showed his distance from Meany in other ways. He appointed a second woman to the AFL-CIO executive council, indicating his receptivity to the growing role of women workers; he invited the Team-sters and Auto Workers' unions to return to the AFL-CIO; he encouraged unemployed workers, union members, and social reformers to participate in a mass protest march in Washington against Reagan's policies; and in the 1984 election he influenced labor to endorse and campaign for a candidate, Walter Mondale, in the Democratic primary.
Kirkland was compelled by reality to break with hoary labor traditions, for his rise to the AFL-CIO presidency coincided with the labor movement's gravest crisis since the 1920s. Kirkland had inherited leadership of a movement in decline economically and politically, yet one about which he could say: "I am not a stranger coming into this house. Everything that we have done and every program that we have undertaken, I think, has mine among the fingerprints on it." Kirkland retired from the presidency in 1995.
A member of the Urban League, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the board of the Rockefeller Foundation, Kirkland was married twice. His first marriage to Edith Draper Hollyday, with whom he had five daughters, ended in divorce in 1972. In 1979 he married Irena Neumann, a Czech Jew and concentration camp survivor, with whom he lived in northwest Washington, D.C.
Further Reading on Joseph Lane Kirkland
There is no available full biography of Kirkland. A revealing profile by A. H. Raskin can be found in the New York Sunday Times Magazine, October 28, 1979; and a brief sketch is in Gary Fink, editor, Biographical Dictionary of American Labor Leaders (1984). For his relationship to Meany and the AFLCIO, see Joseph C. Goulden, Meany (1972).