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
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.