George Meany, the symbol as well as the leader of the American labor movement for much of the 20th century, died of cardiac arrest last night at George Washington University Hospital. He was 85.

Meany, a onetime Bronx plumber, was the first president of the AFL-CIO. He helped form the organization in 1955 through a union of the American Federation of Labor, of which he already was president, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. He remained president of the merged organization until his reitrement last November.

Al Zack, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, said Meany had been admitted to the hospital Sunday for treatment of a buildup of fluid in his legs. He said the labor leader's condition worsened last night and that he was moved to the intensive-care unit.

As leader of the AFL-CIO, Meany was one of the most powerful, colorful and enduring fixtures on the American political scene. He scolded presidents, lobbied Congress and held court for visiting digniatries at the imposing AFL-CIO headquarters overlooking the White House.

Great as was the power -- and the prestige -- of George Meany, the organization to which he devoted his life was losing power at the time he stepped down. Teamsters, auto workers and coal miners were outside the AFL-CIO umbrella. Dissenting voices were being heard increasingly within the federation.

These problems did not detract from the place Meany carved for himself in the history of the American labor movement.

He was not the innovator of the creative idealist as represented by his late rival, Walter P. Reuther (1907-1970), president of the United Auto Workers, who also headed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) before its merger with the AFL.

He had neither the awesome militance nor organizational genius of John Llewelyn Lewis (1880-1969), for 41 years head of the United Mine Workers and founder of the CIO.

He was not an inspirational idealogue such as Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926), the pioneering unionist who went to jail for his part in the bloody Pullman strike in 1894 and again for a pacifist speech in World War I, and who ran for president four times on the Socialist ticket.

"Ideology is baloney," Meany once said. "There can be no ideological differences among real trade unionists."

Among the labor greats, Meany probably most resembled Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), the founder and first president of the American Federation of Labor. (Meany was the fourth).

Like Gompers, Meany disdained formal ties with government or political parties, believed in rewarding labor's friends and punishing its enemies, and viewed the meat and potatoes issues of wages and working conditions as trade unionism's prime concern.

Mr. Meany was a conservator, a synthesizer, a stabilizer: He built on the edifice that had already been established when he came to power. With help from Reuther, he sought to bring back organized labor, badly fragmented over the preceding 20 years, under one roof.

He detested radicals, intellectual phonies, hippies and communists. No matter how acerbic his comments might have been on the business community and its profits, he was devoted to the capitalistic system and free enterprise. aHe was middle America.

During his entire career, Meany never went to jail for union activity, never walked a picket line, never led a strike.

In later years, in fact, he wondered out loud if strikes may not have outlived their usefulness and become too costly. He suggested that labor and management might well explore the alternative of voluntary arbitration -- the prior agreement to abide by terms set by a third party on deadlocked issues -- but acknowledged that such a solution lay well in the future.

Privately he worried about excessive pay increases, and he once referred to those "crazy" wage boosts in the building trades from which he sprang. (They were then running at a 15 percent annual average). This concern might help explain his motivation in pledging labor cooperation with any equitable system of wage and price controls five years before they were ultimately invoked by President Nixon.

It also illustrates one difference he would have had with Gompers. Asked once what labor really wanted, Gompers simply replied, "More." Meany, whose appreciation of economics sharpened with the years, would have regarded that answer as simplistic.

Although Meany may have preferred accommodation -- within the house of labor itself with business with whatever administration might be in the White House -- appeasement was not in him.

He was tough, blunt, undiplomatic at times ruggedly honest and stubbornly uncompromising when he felt labor had been wronged -- as he did under Mr. Nixon's wage stabilization program.

He had differed with presidents before. He opposed a third term for Franklin D. Roosevelt; went to the mat with Harry S. Truman over stabilization policy in the Korean War; challenged Dwight D. Eisenhower to demonstrate his professed concern for interest and fought Lyndon B. Johnson on the minimum wage law.

John F. Kennedy was the only president who did not feel the rough side of his tongue at one time or another. Meany denounced Gerald R. Ford's economic policies and accused him of "government by veto."

He supported Jimmy Carter over Ford in 1976, but Carter was only a few months into his administration before Meany was accusing him of insensitivity to working people.

He stood by Nixon's prosecution of the war in Vietnam and held the AFL-CIO officially neutral in the 1972 presidential campaign because of his opposition to the Democratic candidate, Sen. George McGovern. But he was among the first prominent Americans to demand Nixon's impeachment because of Watergate.

While John L. Lewis could cut an adversary dead with a fierce, leonine scowl and a well-turned Biblical or Shakespearean phrase, Meany could produce nearly the same effect with a blank stare, his heavy eyelids drooping over steely blue-grey eyes, his bulldog jaws clamped on the omnipresent cigar.

And his contempt could be monumental when he suspected insincerity, as when Nixon outlined his program to control wages and prices at the AFL-CIO convention in Miami in 1971. "We will now proceed with Act II," said Meany, amidst thunderous applause from the delegates.

Some saw as Meany's greatest accomplishment the negotiations that reunited the AFL and the CIO in 1955, less than three years after Meany had succeeded William Green as AFL president on the latter's death.

The CIO had been founded within the AFL in 1935 to promote the concept of industrial or "vertical" unionism -- the organization of all workers in a single industry, such as autos or steel, into a single union.

The top leadership of the AFL -- which largely represented craft or "horizontal" unionism in which workers are organized by separate trades -- refused to give its blessing to the splinter group and banished its nine constituent unions.

All efforts to bring the two groups back together in the succeeding years failed until Meany and Reuther got together. After the merger, the demarcation line between craft and industrial unions became progressively blurred, with Meany's encouragement. Today, differences still persist but they are no longer crucial.

It is a matter of historical irony that the two men who brought the two big labor organizations back together (although Lewis's mine workers have not returned) would ultimately have a falling out. If the merger was a major triumph for Meany, it was a keen disappointment to him when Walter Reuther pulled his United Auto Workers, the nation's second largest union, out of the AFL-CIO in 1968. (Technically, the UAW was suspended for nonpayment of dues.)

The Teamsters, another of the big unions, had been ejected from the AFL-CIO in 1967 for violation of the organization's ethical standards. Several smaller unions were similarly dealt with at about the same time. Nothing more outraged Meany than evidence of dishonesty in the management of union funds unless it was generalized and unfounded charges of wrongdoing by honest union officials.

Meany never lost sight of organized labor's primary function -- to protect the wages, hours and working conditions of union members. But he recognized that labor's ability to perform this function depended upon a favorable political and economic climate in the nation and even in the world.

Under his leadership, the AFL-CIO immersed itself in politics, lobbying Congress and successive administrations and supporting candidates of its choice for public office. It involved itself in the affairs of the United Nations and spoke out on issues seemingly far removed from labor's immediate concerns.

Meany came to leadership of the American labor movement the step-by-step way.Son of Michael Meany, president of the Bronx local of the plumbers union, young George Meany dropped out of high school when the family fortunes required his help and served a five-year apprenticeship in his father's trade.

He flunked the journeyman's examination the first time he took it, but passed it six months later to become a certified craftsman in 1915. The experience may have accounted for his life-long defense of the apprenticeship system.

Years later, when accused of condoning extended apprenticeships as a way of discriminating against minorities, he denied the charge but conceded that it might have been justified in the earlier days of craft unionism. In his youth, he said, the unions discriminated, but "even-handedly -- against everybody." He once told a friend that to enter some New York unions early in this century, one had to be not only Irish but from the right county in Ireland.

Seven years after completing his apprenticeship, Meany was elected business agent of his local and soon became active in Central Trades, the agency of the building crafts. This led to his advancement in 1934 to the presidency of the New York State Federation of Labor. After five years in this office he came to Washington as secretary-treasurer of the AFL. Upon the death of William Green in 1952, Meany was unanimously elected president. He was regularly reelected for the rest of his life always unopposed.

It took three years for Meany and Reuther to bring about an amalgamation of the AFL and CIO. Then followed 10 years of sometimes bitter rivalry between these two allies. At the time the rapprochement was achieved Meany represented AFL unions with 10 million members to Reuther's CIO with 5 million.

A conformation between Meany and Lewis at the 66th AFL convention in San Francisco in 1947 was probably the most important single episode of Meany's career.

Lewis was a bear of a man, a powerful orator and a commanding figure in any company. The question before the convention had to do with labor's response to the Taft-Hartley law which the unions had called a "slave labor act." Among the provisions they found obnoxious was a requirement that union officials sign affidavits of loyalty. The executive council had recommended compliance with the law.

Lewis demanded recognition and walked with dramatic deliberation to the rostrum through rows of hushed delegates. He surveyed his audience, bushy brows bristling, fists clenched, an outraged presence. His opening line was; "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth on my corn." He would never, he said, endure the indignity of signing a loyalty oath. the effect was electrifying, but it failed to electrify George Meany.

He removed the cigar from his mouth, walked briskly to the podium and replied to Lewis in matter-of-fact Bronxese. "We know," he said "it (Taft-Hartley) is a bad law, but it was placed on the statute books under the American democratic system, and the only way it is going to be changed is under that system . . . Refusing to sign the anticommunist affidavits would not make the law unoperative . . . this delegate will go along. He won't pick up his bat and ball and go home.

Meany carried the convention and from that day on his influence expanded. It is doubtful whether the loyalty oath was the most objectionable feature of Taft-Hartley to Meany. He has been, and remained, uncompromisingly opposed to communism and Communists in all their guises.

Meany's anticommunism, considered obsessive by his critics on the left has been attributed by some to his Catholicism, by others to the influence of the AFL adviser on international affairs, Jay Lovestone, former high ranking American Communist turned anticommunist with the characteristic zeal of the convert. Meany had his own explanation.He had noted, he said, that free trade unionism was the first victim of every totalitarian regime whether Communist or Fascist, and that once it was destroyed other freedoms tumbled like tenpins.

The success of the Marshall Plan in Western Europe owed much more to the exertions of Meany and his associates than was ever recognized. The plan was violently opposed by the Soviet Union after it had refused an invitation to participate, and affiliated Communist parties, especially in France and Italy, followed the Moscow lead. Deliveries were impeded for a time by sabotage on the docks, Defenses against this were organized by representatives of American labor working with their foreign affiliates, thanks in large measure to Meany's "obsession."

Meany was on his way up in the labor movement but he had not yet arrived at the time of the unions struggles during the Great Depression to secure government guarantees of their rights to organize freely and bargain collectively.

President Roosevelt's National Recovery Act was a temporary boom to labor organizations and subsequently the Wagner Act made it permanent. It was the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the Second World War and the Cold War rather than Depression that tempered and conditioned Meany's leadership.

This doubtless accounted for his enduring suspicion of the Communist powers his support of the war in Vietnam, and even the Nixon-ordered American [WORD ILLEGIBLE] into Cambodia. Meany once called Nixon's handling of the Vietnam situation the only plus he has, and added that this might be wiped out by his visit to mainland China.

Meany's attacks on President Nixon's economic policies were characteristically sharp and frontal. But this time they were recorded on television cameras and their victim was the President of the United States. They therefore attracted more than usual attention. He described Nixon's anti-inflation and recovery policy as Robin Hood in reverse; robbing the poor to help the rich, a form of socialism for big business, a great raid on the federal Treasury."

Meany joined with liberals in a denunciation of Vice President Spiro Agnew as another Joseph McCarthy, and supported many liberal causes, Yet he expressed fear at one point that the Democratic Party was being taken over by the so-called liberals of the new left and that it was in danger of becoming the party of extremists.

For the last year, Meany's health had deteriorated. His wife of 59 years the former Eugenia A. McMahon, a onetime dress-factory worker of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, died last March. Shortly after her death, Meany suffered a knee injury that aggravated an arthritic condition in his hip.

The ailment left him grunt, pale and confined to a wheelchair. He was forced to stay away from his office for most of the year.

His survivors include three daughters.

After the 1971 Miami convention at which he criticized Nixon's economic policies and thereby drew criticism in the press, one of his granddaughters, Ellen Lutz, then 12, wrote a letter to The Washington Post. She said that whatever anybody else might say about Meany, he was a "good granddaddy."