Lane Kirkland, 77, reunited major unions with the AFL-CIO

August 15, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Lane Kirkland, who reunited the major U.S. unions during 16 years as president of the AFL-CIO, died yesterday of lung cancer. He was 77.

Kirkland had battled cancer since before his election in 1979 to the top post in the U.S. trade union movement. Over the years, one kidney, part of the other, and a lung were removed by surgeons.

Despite recurring illness, he held the AFL-CIO post until 1995, wooing back to the ranks of the federation some of the largest American unions that had dropped out -- or been thrown out -- over the years in internal labor disputes. The unions that returned included the United Auto Workers, the Teamsters, the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, and the Chemical Workers.

Kirkland, an intellectual union bureaucrat who championed liberal politics, appeared an improbable candidate as union boss. Unlike his mentor and predecessor, the gruff former Bronx plumber George Meany, the bespectacled Kirkland studied international relations at Georgetown University and planned a career in the U.S. Foreign Service. But in 1948 he took a job as a researcher for the AFL and continued as a union staffer for the next 47 years.

A prolific reader, Kirkland peppered his conversation with quotations from Latin scholars, Lenin and with salty sea metaphors. He avoided the cigars that were Meany's trademark but he chain-smoked cigarettes.

The great-great-grandson of a member of the Confederate Senate, Kirkland regularly referred to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. But he became a champion of racial equality, coordinating a campaign by the AFL-CIO to combat racial discrimination within the union movement. He also pushed for anti-discrimination laws at the national level, lobbying for the inclusion of a fair employment practices provision in the 1964 civil rights act.

Kirkland also led the AFL-CIO in supporting workers in countries where the trade union movement was suppressed, including South Africa, China, Cuba and Chile.

But Kirkland's career ended in bitterness. In May of 1995, he announced that he would run for a ninth two-year term. But he immediately drew strong opposition from union leaders who believed he had already stayed too long.

In the end, Kirkland lost out because he never shed the image of behind-the-scenes operator that he developed as Meany's lieutenant.

Despite his success in bringing several of the nation's biggest unions back into the AFL-CIO fold, the federation's total membership remained stagnant during his tenure as the percentage of organized workers declined steadily.

Joseph Lane Kirkland was born March 12, 1922, in Camden, S.C.

In 1994, President Clinton awarded Kirkland the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Kirkland is survived by his second wife, Irena, and five daughters from his first marriage.

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