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Shop Steward of the Free World: The Story of Lane Kirkland

Shop Steward of the Free World: The Story of Lane Kirkland

Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor. Arch Puddington. John Wiley & Sons Inc. $23.

“Most of those present here today are workers. Creative workers. And I myself, having spent many years of my life as a stone cutter, as a foundryman, as a manual worker, in the name of all who have shared this forced labor with me, like the two Gulag prisoners whom you just saw, and on behalf of those who are doing forced labor in our country [the Soviet Union], I can start my speech today with the greeting: ‘Brothers! Brothers in labor!’”

Thus began Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s speech before a dinner held by the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in Washington, DC on June 30, 1975. True to form, Solzhenitsyn’s speech was trenchant and wide-ranging. He decried the Western Powers’ postwar acquiescence in the face of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union and China, lamented the fall of Saigon to communist North Vietnam a month earlier, and called for American workingmen to stand with their Soviet brethren against the tyranny of the Soviet State.

Solzhenitsyn had been introduced by George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, and his protégé, secretary-treasurer Lane Kirkland. Both men were fervent anticommunists and supporters of free labor movements wherever they were oppressed—especially in the Soviet bloc. With Meany as president, the AFL policed its ranks for communist agitators and even walked out of the World Federation of Trade Unions in 1945, accusing it of being a front for the USSR. Throughout the Cold War, the leading role of the AFL meant that American organized labor was a stalwart foe of communism.

In 1951, under Meany’s leadership, the AFL merged with the other large organized labor federation in America, the Congress of Industry Organizations. The AFL-CIO would become the largest organized labor federation in the United States, composed of around 15 million members at its height. In domestic politics, the AFL-CIO sought to defend the interests of the American worker. In debates about foreign policy, it argued that the interests of the workers of the world were best served by a strong, assertive America that stood up to tyrannical regimes abroad. Indeed, Meany’s AFL-CIO supported the beleaguered Johnson administration in the national furor over the Vietnam War.

When Meany retired in 1979 and Lane Kirkland ascended to the AFL-CIO’s presidency, the federation’s anticommunist traditions continued unabated. “Kirkland,” recounts Arch Puddington in his biography, “would never refer to Soviet trade unions or trade unionists; he spoke of labor fronts or so-called trade unions, or he surrounded the phrase with quotation marks.” Kirkland knew that although communism claimed to rule in the name of the working class, in practice it always obliterated workers’ rights to bargain collectively and to form trade unions independent of the state.

Kirkland was one of the most vocal overseas advocates of the free Polish trade union Solidarność and used AFL-CIO funds to smuggle mimeograph machines into communist Poland. In a country with no free press, these machines were vital to Solidarność in helping spread its message covertly among the Polish people. In fact, Kirkland consistently criticized the Reagan administration for not imposing sufficiently stringent sanctions on the regime of Wojciech Jaruzelski after he declared martial law and jailed Solidarność leaders like Lech Wałęsa. When President George H. W. Bush awarded Wałęsa the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he awarded Kirkland with the Presidential Citizen’s Medal at the same time.

Nor was Kirkland concerned only about the workers of Eastern Europe. Through the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), Kirkland and the AFL-CIO spearheaded the development of independently-organized labor unions in Central American countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua. By helping develop civil society organizations without direct ties to ruling regimes, the AIFLD worked to foster liberal democratic institutions strong enough to oppose both Soviet-backed forces like the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and the right-wing death squads of would-be caudillos like Robert D’Aubuisson.

Kirkland, like Meany before him, opposed US recognition of the People’s Republic of China, which finally occurred in 1979. Even after the Cold War, Kirkland stood up against the Clinton administration’s concession of most favored nation (MFN) status to Beijing. “We are losing jobs to China,” Kirkland said in 1994, “but jobs [are] not the touchstone issue in itself. The issue with us is how our brothers and sisters in China who work for a living are treated.” Kirkland promoted the work of Harry Wu, a Chinese dissident who exposed the massive network of laogai—a forced labor camp network like the Soviet Union’s Gulag archipelago—and fought for his release from Chinese imprisonment.

Puddington’s excellent biography tells the story of a leader who understood the power and sanctity of the right to organize. In Kirkland’s worldview, independent labor unions constituted an expression of the freedom to associate and a vital voice for working people. To Kirkland, free labor unions were Madisonian, not Marxist. Communist “labor fronts” were merely the tools of totalitarian regimes.

Kirkland’s voice is still vital. In his article condemning the AFL-CIO’s recent celebration of Víctor Lemagne Sánchez, an apparatchik in the regime-controlled Workers’ Central Union of Cuba, journalist Jamie Kirchick draws heavily on Puddington’s biography to illustrate the proud history of the AFL-CIO’s fight for global worker freedom.

In 1999, just before his death, Kirkland was awarded VOC’s Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom. Today, the AFL-CIO awards the George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award to “outstanding examples of the international struggle for human rights through trade unions.” Through his lifetime of advocacy for trade unionists and workers oppressed by so-called “workers’ states,” Kirkland acted as the shop steward of the Free World.