IN APRIL 1995 Lane Kirkland spoke at a ceremony in Warm Springs, Ga., remembering Franklin D. Roosevelt on the 50th anniversary of his death. The labor leader talked of conditions in the 1930s, when he had come of age: poorhouses as the social safety net, desolation on the farms, joblessness in the cities. "I am proud to acknowledge that I am a child of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. . . . " Mr. Kirkland said. "I do not and cannot forget those roots in the past. So today, if asked whether the label `liberal' or `conservative' or `misanthrope' fits, I can only respond that I am a New Dealer, pure and simple and unreconstructed."
All three of those labels were applied to Mr. Kirkland by friends and enemies -- "misanthrope" perhaps referring to his stubborn refusal to do sound bites, for which practice alone he ought to merit a major piece of statuary in this city. But the "pure and simple and unreconstructed" says a great deal more about him, not just as New Dealer but as human being.
Mr. Kirkland, who died last week at the age of 77, had certain ideas about human freedom and dignity that didn't tend to alter with intellectual fashion. As a protege of George Meany, and his successor as leader of the AFL-CIO, Mr. Strickland maintained the labor federation's traditional anti-communist stance while greatly advancing its commitment to the human rights of workers in this country and abroad -- in places such as Chile, South Africa, Cuba, China and, most notably, Poland, where American labor's aid to the Solidarity movement played an important role in undermining Communist rule in Eastern Europe. Some of his critics in the labor movement felt Mr. Kirkland devoted too much time and attention to these foreign crusades, at the expense of shoring up the eroding position of unions in American society. But surely those efforts to advance democracy will be seen long into the future as one of the finest endeavors ever undertaken by any great organization of working people.
A few months after he spoke at Warm Springs, Mr. Kirkland resigned the presidency of the labor federation, a post he had held since 1979, after a majority of the member unions expressed dissatisfaction with his leadership. Mr. Kirkland, for all his efforts to strengthen the labor federation -- he helped bring several large unions into or back to the AFL-CIO -- had been unable to stop the long, steady decline in union membership as a percentage of the American work force. In truth, that decline has probably had far more to do with the changing realities of the national and world economies than with any deficiencies of leadership -- and it has continued since Mr. Kirkland's departure.
Mr. Kirkland was never reconciled with his adversaries, especially his successor as AFL-CIO president, John J. Sweeney, but few who knew him would disagree with Mr. Sweeney's statement upon his death: "Working people around the world are better off today because of Lane Kirkland's strong advocacy on their behalf, and the world is more free because of his courage and leadership."