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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with David Burgess, September 25, 1974. Interview E-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Critique of the AFL-CIO merger and leaders Meany and Reuther

Burgess evaluates the merger of the AFL and CIO. He also compares George Meany's leadership tactics to those of Walter Reuther. The striking dissimilarities between Reuther and Mean exacerbated pre-existing tensions. Burgess reasons, however, that Reuther's leadership failures made the CIO less concerned with labor organizing work.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with David Burgess, September 25, 1974. Interview E-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

DAVID BURGESS:
I feel that the merger between the AFL and the CIO was a mistake on two counts: the basic differences on ideologies affecting the foreign policy of the American labor movement and the foreign policy of the American Government; and the resulting loss of idealism among labor officials after the merger took place. There is little question in my mind that George Meany shafted me while I was a foreign service officer during the period of 1955 to 1966. I have reason to believe that my confidential reports fell into the hands of members of the International Affairs Department of the AFL-CIO, particularly Jay Lovestone and Harry Goldberg. I remember one report, a confidential report, which I wrote to the State Department from the Embassy in New Delhi sometime late in 1957. In it I outlined the policies of George Meany regarding the role of the American labor movement and those of Walter Reuther. And naturally I came out strongly for the Reuther position. In 1962 I was about to be considered for an important position abroad with the Agency for International Development. Somehow George Meany heard about it. He called in Ralph Dungan from the White House staff and told him in non-equivocal terms that he didn't want me to be appointed to any important position in the American Government. Ralph called me to the White House to give me the bad word. I immediately called Walter Reuther. He officially protested to Dungan, but the damage to my whole career within the State Department had been done. Possibly the knife in my back had been pulled out, but the hole was still there. I talked with my friend Joe Keenan, Secretary Treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (I had taken Joe on a tour of India in 1958 and 1959). He made an intervention with George Meany and arranged an appointment for me with Meany. Our conference was polite but in no way changed the situation. He must have remembered that I had once worked for Victor Reuther, when Victor headed the CIO International Affairs Department. He must have recalled that following Meany's attack on Tito and Nehru at the first AFL-CIO convention in 1955, Walter Reuther came to India in April of 1956 and tried to repair the damage. I was Walter's guide throughout India-and the trip was a phenomenal success. The weakness of Reuther's position is that he failed to put into the international field men from the labor movement with his own ideology. In contrast George Meany had a whole network of functionaries serving under Jay Lovestone. In July of 1958 I went to Walter's well guarded home in Birmingham, Michigan and had a long talk with him about the necessity of putting more good men from the labor movement into assignments abroad. Walter agreed. May, his wife, agreed, but nothing was done. The difference between Walter and George stemmed around their view of the CIA. With the exception of receiving some money from this agency in the late 1940's in order to help some struggling democratic labor movements in Western Europe (I think West Germany was the case in point), Walter made it a policy of not receiving money from this agency or cooperating with it. In contrast, as was very evident whenever Harry Goldberg and others of Lovestone's staff visited New Delhi or Djakarta (when I was in the Peace Corps as Director in Indonesia during 1963 and 1964), those international representatives of the AFL-CIO working under Meany and Lovestone had intimate contacts with CIA staff and with the "controlled sources" (paid agents) in the countries of Asia where I worked during the period of 1955 through 1972. The second reason why I think that the AFL and CIO merger was a mistake-in hindsight-was the fact that the amount of money put directly into organization work within the United States went down after 1955, the date when the merger took place. One striking exception to this rule, however, has been George Meany's constant support of Caesar Chavez after the Teamsters' Union ganged up with the growers to fight the Farm Workers Union and to sign whenever possible "sweetheart contracts." Another encouraging sign is the steady growth, during recent years, of the State County and Municipal Workers Union under the leadership of Jerry Wurf . . . I worked from 1947 through 1949 as a staff member of "Operation Dixie." We were up against great odds. Many of our staff were beaten up or run out of town. But we persisted, despite many defeats in NLRB-run elections and despite constant company harassment in the courts, the communities, the churches and the textile mills. We were encouraged by words of encouragement from "Dr. Frank" of Chapel Hill, and unfortunately we don't see many men of his stature encouraging the labor movement today to organize the unorganized in the South.