Obituary: Lane Kirkland

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LANE KIRKLAND was always a rather improbable union leader - and in the end he paid for his peculiarities by becoming the first head of the American labour movement to be toppled by a revolt within the ranks.

It happened in 1995, 16 years after he had succeeded his mentor, the legendary George Meany, as president of the AFL-CIO, the US equivalent of the TUC. That June, Kirkland was forced to resign. Five months later he was succeeded by John Sweeney, leader of Service Employees International and the insurgency's prime mover who had labelled him "an irrelevance". Kirkland would ever thereafter regard his downfall as an unforgivable act of ingratitude and betrayal. In reality it had for years been a rebellion waiting to happen.

By intellect, interests and upbringing, he could not have been more distant from the traditional image of a labour leader. The son of a South Carolina cotton-buyer, whose own great-grandfather had signed the Confederate Declaration of Secession in 1861, he spoke with a soft Dixie accent that made him sound more like a professor than a union official. After the Second World War, he attended the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and later wrote campaign speeches for Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for the White House in 1952 and 1956.

All the while he was climbing the union bureaucracy, from his first post as a researcher for the American Federation of Labor before it merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955. Meany was the first head of the AFL-CIO, and took on Kirkland as his executive assistant in 1960. Nine years later he named him Secretary-Treasurer, the organisation's second-ranking job - in practice handpicking a successor who, as Meany's own physical powers declined, frequently ran the AFL-CIO. Meany's eventual retirement in 1979, at the age of 85, merely made the handover official.

In the years to come, Kirkland would enjoy successes, most notably in bringing the auto-workers, dockers and teamsters unions into the AFL-CIO fold. But to many he was an aloof and arrogant figure, cultivating tastes for poetry, fine wines and sculpture that were far removed from those of the average working man. Worse still, he seemed more concerned with events abroad than the union movement's gathering plight at home.

Probably, no one could have stemmed the decline in big labour's fortunes. Events in America paralleled those in Britain, as steel, mining and other traditional union industries withered, and old craft trades were replaced by services and a burgeoning and fragmented high-technology sector, far less hospitable to organised labour. The ideological pendulum swung rightward, towards the free markets. For Margaret Thatcher read Ronald Reagan; for the UK miners' strike of 1984/85, read the 1981 strike by federal air traffic controllers, which Reagan resolved by simply sacking those who did not return to work by a given deadline. For America's unions, the 1980s and early 1990s were a litany of strikes lost; during Kirkland's tenure, union membership slid to 15 per cent from 24 per cent of the total workforce.

But Kirkland's mind often seemed to be elsewhere. Foreign affairs had fascinated him since his Georgetown days. He was a fervent anti-Communist who believed that the West's free union movement should be on the frontline of the global ideological struggle. Hence his deep involvement with the Solidarity union of Lech Walesa, to which the AFL-CIO channelled much financial as well as moral support in its struggle with Poland's Communist government. "The success of Solidarity owes a lot to Lane," his friend Henry Kissinger remarked, with some reason.

But such victories created no jobs at home. For workers who were losing their jobs, there was little to distinguish the views of AFL-CIO from those of corporate bosses. The last straw, perhaps, was Kirkland's failure in 1993 to prevent a Democratic Congress from passing the detested North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), allegedly exposing US workers to devastating competition from cheap Mexican labour. So much for the special rapport with the Democrats that had existed since Roosevelt's day, and the vast sums spent by labour in support of Democratic candidates. There could be no starker proof of the unions' lost clout and, within 18 months, Kirkland's career was over.

Joseph Lane Kirkland, trade unionist: born Camden, South Carolina 12 March 1922; married first Edith Draper Hollyday (five daughters; marriage dissolved 1972), second Irena Neumann; died Washington DC 14 August 1999.