AFL-CIO President George Meany got a public rebuke from his closest ally in the Carter administration yesterday as relations between the White House and the veteran labor chief continued to deteriorate.
Meany's chilly response, tempered only slightly by a conciliatory gesture toward cooperating with the administration on economic problems, vowed: "I don't intend to change."
The rebuke came from Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, who confirmed that President Carter is angry at Meany's continual criticism of the administration and went on to say that he too considers the criticism "unacceptable."
Marshall's stand was significant. He has never before publicly criticized the 83-year-old labor leader, and has been designated by Meany as the only administration official he wants to deal with.
Meany did not back off his criticism. But he did announce formation of a top-level AFL-CIO committee to work with Marshall "from time to time" on economic problems, including inflation - one of the flashpoints in the long-smoldering hostilities between Meany and the Democratic administration he helped elect.
Meany made clear that this did not signal any change in AFL-CIO opposition to wage restraints as an inflation remedy. "The AFL-CIO is not an agency of government," he said. "It cannot be used to hold down wages or control workers."
The administration should be trying to "solve the nation's economic problems" rather than "issuing statements and press releases or leaking views from anonymous sources," Meany asserted.
This was a reference to a high-level White House official quoted in yesterday's Washington Post as saying Carter was "absolutely livid" at Meany's repeated critisms in the face of White House fence-mending efforts.
Marshall said both he and Carter were "personally disturbed" by Meany's criticism this week of a postal workers contract that includes only modest wage increases. Also, he said, it was "simply unacceptable" to say, as Meany did, that administration ineffectiveness contributed to defeat of the labor law revision bill.
"I don't want to have a public quarrel with George Meany," Marshall told reporters. "He is a good friend and a man with whom I usually find myself in agreement. But on this occasion I feel that his remarks were very unfortunate."
Marshall said it was a "mistake" for Meany to intervene in the postal contract ratification process, an act for which Meany has also been denounced by leaders of AFL-CIO postal unions. The intervention, said Marshall, "could lead to a rejection of the contracts, more inflationary demands and increased labor tensions."
At the same time, however, Marshall tried to play down the seriousness of the rift, saying the administration and organized labor share common objectives in most areas.
There is no "break" between the administration and the AFL-CIO, said Marshall. An AFL-CIO official agreed, but other sources said the "chemistry" between Carter and Meany is so bad that poor relations are likely to continue - "probably to their mutual detriment," said one labor leader.
Administration aides said Marshall acted independently of the White House in calling yesterday's press conference but cleared his opening statement with presidential assistants, including media adviser Gerald Rafshoon, who reportedly urged Marshall to avoid any temptation to tone down the language. The words were uncharacteristically strong for the usually genial Marshall.
While Marshall often downplays the contribution of wages to inflation, he emphasized it yesterday, saying it would be a "serious misconception for anyone to believe that the administration can ignore the inflationary aspects of collective bargaining agreements." He said the government will stay out of the bargaining but will continue to push for constraints before the negotiations start.