When Lane Kirkland died Aug. 14, a lot was said about the former AFL-CIO leader's work on behalf of Eastern European dissidents who brought down communism. Not enough attention was paid to how his work against totalitarianism abroad was intimately linked to his work on behalf of social justice in the United States.
Kirkland was a genuine hero in Poland and may have been better known in that country than in his own. In the early 1980s, when the Solidarity trade union movement launched its challenge to the country's dictatorship, the idea that organized workers could bring down Soviet power was regarded as absurd.
But Kirkland saw the opening for freedom and funneled substantial aid to the rebels of Solidarity. He and like-minded Americans made the case that democratic movements seeking to make changes from the bottom in Eastern Europe would prove to be as important to the spread of freedom as arms and diplomacy. If the workers were leading the fight against rulers who claimed to be running a "workers' state," the Communist ruling class was bound to be discredited. It was.
"In the late 1970s, there was hardly anybody standing up for dissident movements behind the Iron Curtain," says Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University historian. "Lane Kirkland stood fast in giving material aid and comfort to working people abroad in their heroic fight against communism."
The great and sad irony of Kirkland's life, as Wilentz noted, is that "he may have won his greatest victories in Warsaw and in Prague at a time when his own labor movement had entered into a long period of decline."
"The tragedy of his tenure," says David Kusnet, a visiting fellow at the pro-union Economic Policy Institute here, "is that he wasn't able to convince our nation's leaders that Solidarity is as beautiful a word in English as it is in Polish."
The steady decline in American union membership created a dissident movement in Kirkland's own backyard. It was led by union activists who wanted a more aggressive approach to politics and to organizing. Kirkland was finally forced to step down as AFL-CIO president in 1995.
In a bitter struggle, the dissidents, led by John Sweeney, defeated Kirkland's favored candidate, longtime AFL-CIO official Tom Donahue. It was a cause of sadness among Kirkland's friends that by delaying his resignation too long, Kirkland may have prevented Donahue, his loyal and able lieutenant, from taking the job.
Kirkland, says Kusnet, was a product of labor's heyday when George Meany led the movement. "Labor was an established institution and the issue was how best to wield its power," says Kusnet, who has worked in the labor movement since the mid-1970s. "Toward the end of Kirkland's era, accomplished as he was in many arenas, there was a necessity to build labor's power back and not just wield it."
Since his election, Sweeney has led a revival of labor's political influence and stepped up the movement's organizing campaigns. But Wilentz and Kusnet, both of them Sweeney sympathizers, argue that it would be a mistake to write off Kirkland's legacy or claim that he was too interested in events abroad for the good of his movement at home.
By demonstrating the link between what Wilentz called "principled anticommunism" and the struggle of workers for social justice, Kirkland's life is a reminder that the firmest friends of freedom are not necessarily those who shout free market slogans the loudest. Even now, organized labor and the churches remain the most insistent supporters of human rights abroad -- China comes to mind -- and the most vociferous foes of dictators who block their own citizens from organizing and speaking out freely.
"I am proud to acknowledge that I am a child of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal," Kirkland once said. "I do not and cannot forget those roots in the past."
That may sound backward-looking, but it's not. Rather, Kirkland's international efforts may have provided a glimmer of a future in which the best of the New Deal's principles are applied to a global economy. Social movements working on behalf of human freedom and economic justice are doing more than ever to assist each other across national boundaries. The struggle that began with the brave and stubborn workers in Gdansk and Warsaw isn't over yet.