AFL-CIO President George Meany yesterday endorsed the new Panama Canal treaties, giving President Carter an important boost in the drive to win congressional ratification of the controversial pacts.
Meany's personal endorsement followed an intensive White House campaign to win wide-ranging support for the recently negotiated treaties and some heavy wooing of the AFL-CIO with other programs, including a minimum wage increase and labor law overhaul.
Sources said Carter called Meany personally last Wednesday to sound him out on the treaties, which are sensitive matters for the AFL-CIO because they affect the job security, bargaining rights and compensation of an estimated 12,500 union members who work on the canal.
Meany told a news conference, held in conjunction with an AFL-CIP Executive Council meeting here, that he has received assurances that workers' rights will be protected by labor clauses in the treaties.
Meany's endorsement - following similar expressions of support by former President Ford and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger - is expected to be followed by a formal AFL-CIO blessing today.
AFL-CIO spokesman Albert J. Zack said an Executive Council discussion yesterday resulted in some criticism of the treaties, under which the United States would gradually transfer control of the canal to Panama by the year 2000 but give the United States the right to defend the waterway indefinitely. But Zack said the critical views were a "minority."
Meany's endorsement, although it was not a major surprise, was significant in light of the labor federation chief's continuing criticism of many of the administration's other foreign policy overtures.
But, in the case of the Canal, he said, "My general attitude is [that] there is no particular reason for us holding onto territories 6,000 miles away just because we built the canal on somebody else's land back in 1904."
He said he doesn't think the "history of American involvement in the canal is anything that Americans can be proud of," calling it a legacy of "the era of tugboat diplomacy."
Meany said he talked several months ago with treaty negotiator Ellsworth Bunker and "impressed on him the need to get labor clauses in the treaty." He said he understood "action was taken along those lines," which other sources said assures that AFL-CIO-affiliated union members will suffer no diminution of their existing job rights.
While embracing the treaties and generally softening this previous criticism of Carter, Meany continued to criticize the administration on a number of issues, including its bids for improved relations with the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China and Cuba.
"I'm very much concerned that we seem to be making overtures to countries where there are no such things as human rights," said Meany, calling Carter's foreign policy "a little inconsistent."
Meany, who three months ago said he could find little to praise in the Carter administration, said there are now "some pluses" and summed up the President by saying, "Well, I would say he's trying, trying a little too hard in some cases."
But he said Carter has yet to come to grips with unemployment, and the Executive Council, in a resolution, criticized the administration's welfare program for proposing creation of jobs at less than prevailing wage rates. The council also endorsed the "basic thrust" of the administration's policy on illegal aliens but said penalties against "unscrupulous" employers are "too weak."
Asked if he will seek another term as AFL-CIO president at the federation's December meeting, the 83-year-old Meany responded with a gruff "yes." He paused a minute and then asked the questioner, "Do you want to be my campaign manager?"