President Carter was reported to be "absolutely livid" at AFL-CIO President George Meany yesterday as the veteran labor leader also received stinging rebukes from leaders of AFL-CIO postal unions.
The new low point in relations between Carter and Meany was reported by a high-level White House official, who said he had "seldom seen him [the president] so mad."
The official said Carter's anger stemmed from the labor leader's repeated attacks on the administration in the face of White House efforts to accomodate Meany, most recently by agreeing earlier this week to restrain government intervention in contract bargaining.
Meany applauded the move but then accused the president of ineffectiveness in lobbying for labor law overhaul legislation and criticized a recently negotiated postal workers contract that is the administration's only trophy thus far in its campaign to keep down the cost of wage settlements.
It was Meany's criticism of the postal contract that drew fire from the union chiefs.
J. Joseph Vacca, president of the National Association of Letter Cariers, called on Meany to retract the criticism and bluntly accused him of being as guilty as White House inflation fighters of interfering with contract bargaining. Other postal union officials also criticized Meany's coments on the contract.
Top Carter aides, who are generally unwilling to concede that Carter is really angry about anything, yesterday described a president near the breaking point in relations with Meany.
The president believes he has bent over backwards to accommodate the AFL-CIO president and has, in return, "been dumped on" by Meany at every opportunity.
In recent weeks, the senior adviser said, Meany "has just gone too far . . . You just can't keep coming into somebody - even a man as patient as the president - and then turn around and do this."
"The labor movement is not just George Meany, you know," the adviser said.
The lastest "accommodation" was the administration's decision to set up a five-member panel, headed by Meany's friend Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, to coordinate, government efforts to restrain inflationary wage increases.
Meany had grown increasingly irritated over the efforts of Barry Bosworth, director of the Council on Wage and Price Stability, to interfere with union collective bargaining in the anti-inflation effort.
In a meeting two weeks ago, Meany complained about Bosworth and won the presidential agreement to set up the panel. Meany also asked at the meeting that Marshall be his only liaison with the Carter adminstration, by-passing other officials who normally share that function. Carter agreed.
Meany's criticism of the administration's lobbying effort on the labor law revision bill followed that and seems to have set off White House anger.
"We busted our a- on that labor law reform," said an aide. "And it cost us politically. It was most unpopular with our own base of support and now we get blamed because we can't pass their [the AFL-CIO's] bill for them."
"That bill got beat at the grass roots," said the aide. And it was "just this sort of arrogance" from Meany that helped seal its fate.
The White House is also upset at Meany's "sticking his nose" in the postal contract dispute and at his failure to praise the administration's success at bringing down the unemployment rate.
The uproar within AFL-CIO ranks was unusual in that Meany almost never comments on individual union contracts and is not accustomed to public knuckle-wrapping from usually supportive union presidents like Vacca.
Moreover, it shattered the facade of labor solidarity behind Meany's strategy for fighting the inflation fighters at a time when the AFL-CIO, frustrated by worsening relations with the White House and setbacks on Capitol Hill, is groping for some successes.
Meany had no comment on Vacca's call for a retraction. AFL-CIO spokesman Albert Z. Zack said Meany "stands by the statement he made." As for the intervention charge, Zack said, "I think there is a good deal of difference between lobbying an employer [to keep down wages] and answering a reporter's question."
Meany had been especially critical of such "jawboning" efforts by Bostworth. Meany "can no longer criticize Barry Bosworth now that he is guilty of the same interference in the collective bargaining process," said Vacca.
In response to a question while in Chicago to attend an AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting, Meany said the proposed postal wage increase of 19.5 percent over three years was too low and predicted that the 500,000 postal union member would reject the contract in a mail-ballot referendum that is now underway.
Said Vacca: "The AFL-CIO has, until now, scrupulously stayed out of internal matters and collective bargaining contracts of constituent unions. By shattering this long-respected code, he has established an unprecedented, un-trade union practice."
James LaPenta, who represents the Mailhandlers, said postal workers have "become a pawn in the battle between Carter and Meany over who's running the country." Emmet Andrews, president of the American Postal Workers Union, said "perhaps he [Meany] had his glasses on backward when he read the contract."
Vacca predicted his union will prove Meany wrong by ratifying the contract but said his union constitution mandates a strike if the contract is rejected and the Postal Service refused to resume bargaining, as it has said it would do. Vacca said he would call a strike, although strikes are illegal.