GEORGE MEANY was 22 years old when he became a

member of Plumbers Local 463 in the Bronx, the same local to which his father belonged. The union was sacred to his father and his friends--he later recalled that they always referred to it as "the Organ-I-zation"--and it soon became sacred to Meany. Before long he had committed himself to representing workers rather than fixing faucets, and he moved upward quickly from one job to another: official of his local union, member of the board of the New York State Federation of Labor, president of the State Federation, secretary treasurer of the American Federation of Labor, president of the AFL, and, finally, president of the merged AFL and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Obviously he was an ambitious and resourceful man, but we get little sense of that from Archie Robinson's adoring, official biography. Robinson prefers to represent Meany as something of a saint, one who accepted all these heavy responsibilities because of his sense of duty but wanted no honors for himself. Well, Meany may not have wanted honors but he certainly wanted power--and he knew how to get it. Within the ranks of labor he was an ingenious and forceful maneuverer who knew how to be at the right place at the right time, and what to do once he was there. As a mover and shaker within the national Democratic Party he at times rivaled his contemporary, Chicago mayor Richard Daley, and he was approximately as subtle as Daley in the style of his manipulation. He had at his command the resources of the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education (though, oddly enough, the name of its feared and formidable former director, Al Barkan, is not mentioned once in the text of this biography), and he did not hesitate to use them.

Meany's early-'60s "agenda for domestic reform," as described by Robinson, sounds like a Reagan hit list: "Medicare; higher pensions for widows, dependents and the disabled; federal aid to public elementary and secondary education; scholarships and low-interest loans for college students; an expanded anti-poverty program; an improved manpower development and training program; more generous public housing grants; and creation of a Department of Housing and Urban Development." He and his union were a powerful force for the growth of the federal bureaucracy; at the time of his death two years ago, a political campaign was underway that ultimately would repudiate that growth--with the members of his union, turned off liberalism by the excesses of the student movement, being influential agents of repudiation.

Meany understood, Robinson argues, that labor was changing in the last years of his life, that it was less interested in strikes and reform, more interested in security and stabilization. Yet the evidence is that Meany failed to grasp the political meaning of this, with the result that a few months after his death a substantial part of the AFL- CIO's membership, by voting for Ronald Reagan, in effect turned against its leadership. Meany, who was nearly 85 before he finally relinquished his presidency, in the end was out of touch.

But certainly he was, in his lengthy prime, a considerable force for progressive change in American life. He played a major role in the civil-rights movement, goading his union into bold statements and policies long before the movement became politically fashionable. He believed that government has a responsibility to safeguard the rights and opportunities of all citizens, and he championed a dazzling variety of legislation designed to insure those safeguards. His loathing of communism was not a mere reflex, but an outgrowth of his anger over the denial of human rights in the Communist bloc; he believed that the rights won by American workers should be extended to all workers everywhere. Only in his outspoken support for the American role in Vietnam was he flatly at odds with the liberalism of his day; and he later, as the deceptions of the Johnson and Nixon administrations were revealed, came to regret that support.

Meany espoused liberalism but had little time for liberals. His convictions were the products of experience, not of cocktail parties or campus teach-ins. Because his manner was rough and his language seemingly unschooled, he was in turn held in disdain by the campus demonstrators and their adult camp followers; the disdain deepened to hatred when he spoke out on Vietnam. Yet it remains that Meany probably had a greater and more salubrious effect on American life than any or all of the spokesmen for the manifold varieties of radical chic. He could be a contrary and difficult man, but his gut instincts were decent and compassionate.

George Meany and His Times, unfortunately, does not give the old boy his due. It will be of value to Meany's future biographers because for the last four years of his life Meany talked into Robinson's tape recorder once a week; Robinson has faithfully transcribed much of what he said and reprinted it verbatim in this book. But in his hands it remains largely undigested raw material; he fails to explore the meaning of much of what Meany said to him, and he fails to bring Meany to life.

This last is a negative accomplishment of some considerable dimensions, since Meany was a crackling public figure and, by most accounts, an even more crackling private one. For approximately a quarter-century he was the personification of Big Labor: the fat cigar, the whisky voice, the earthy language, the burly physique and uncompromising manner. Far more than John L. Lewis, who was a phony, Meany looked the part he played; Central Casting could not have done better.

Confronted with a public figure as dynamic and engaging as Meany was, the reader of his biography comes to it with a central question: What was he really like? It is this question that Robinson utterly fails to answer. At one point, for example, he writes fully 170 pages without a single mention of Meany's wife. Then, from out of the blue, he gives this:

"But by then the embattled chieftain was seriously ill. His wife, Eugenie McMahon Meany had died in March, at the age of 82, following a long illness. Her death was a staggering blow. Although in the past, in news conferences and private chats, he had joked about being 'bossed' by his wife--something that seemed incredible to those who try to judge character from a TV screen-- the jokes covered up a deep, mutual devotion, an Irish togetherness, tenderness, that had sustained this 'tough' labor leader for six decades. When half of the partnership died, his whole life was shattered."

All of which probably is entirely true--but there is nothing in the nearly 400 preceding pages to prepare the reader for that paragraph. It's one thing to say, after the fact, that Meany and his wife had a "partnership"; it's quite another to show how that partnership evolved, how it worked, how it affected Meany's life and career. This Robinson completely fails to do. Like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writing about Robert Kennedy, he concentrates on the public man so singlemindedly--or, to be more accurate, on an official and perhaps laundered version of the public man--that the private one, the real one, is almost completely lost.

Robinson is an earnest and conscientious researcher, and much of the material he has assembled is useful. But what he has written is a compendium, not a biography.