"Ideology is baloney," George Meany once said.

It was this philosophy that helped propel the former Bronx plumber through the union ranks to become the absolute ruler of the American labor movement and a national political power for nearly half a century.

Almost singlehandedly, with no real political base, Meany constructed the AFL-CIO and then kept it together, nearly intact, for 24 years

"Putting labor under a single roof was Meany's greatest achievement," a close associate said yesterday after the 85-year-old labor chieftain announced his retirement as president of the federation."Nobody else could have done it."

Unlike his labor peers, such as John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther, Meany had no union base on which to build his political power. Instead, he made his word his strength in his role as honest broker for a growing trade union movement in the 1940s and '50s.

Meany never had the innovation or creative idealism of Reuther, nor did he have the organizational genius of Lewis, whose foresight led to the creation of the United Automobile Workers and United Steelworkers in the 1930s.

But it was Meany alone who had the ability to keep the warring factions of labor together. He was labor's organization man.

What Meany perhaps understood best was the relationship between legislation and politics. A firm believer in rewarding friends and punishing enemies, Meany had learned his politics as a union lobbyist in the New York State legislature where he helped win passage of the earliest worker's compensation laws.

To capitalize on the relationship between politics and legislation, Meany set up the Committee on Political Education (COPE) in the AFL-CIO to give labor a massive financial and organizational means for rewarding friends. Over the years the COPE operation has become so successful it has been copied by almost every major corporation.

Weaned on Tammany Hall politics in his native New York, Meany was always the political pragmatist both inside and out of the labor movement.

It was Meany's pragmatism and his refusal to let conflicting ideologies get in the way of each other that often made him friend and foe of presidents, often at the same time.

One of the presidents hit hardest by Meany's differing allegiances was Richard M. Nixon.

In 1971, it was George Meany who almost singlehandedly forced President Mixon to give labor veto power over wage decisions made by the administration's wage controls program.

And yet, it was George Meany, the fervent anticommunist, who earlier that year was one of Nixon's few public supporters when the president ordered the bombing of Cambodia.

Nixon was not the only president to experience almost simultaneously Meany's support and wrath.

During World War II, when he was secretary-treasurer of the old AFL, Meany walked off Franklin Roosevelt's wage control panel to protest government wage policies. And yet Meany was one of the most ardent supporters of Roosevelt's New Deal domestic policies.

Just as he had with Roosevelt, Meany walked off Harry Truman's wage controls panel during the Korean War.

In addition to his political pragmatism, Meany was also an ardent capitalist -- a fact often overlooked by business. Unlike most European labor leaders, George Meany did not favor income redistribution through the creation of a social democratic system.

"He never cared if business made money as long as the worker got a fair share," a close aide said."He always went along with the capitalist system."

Throughout his career, Meany's personal beliefs often seemed in conflict with his institutional actions. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in the civil rights area.

In 1949 at an AFL convention in Houston, Meany marched up to the desk of the convention hotel with his arms around A. Philip Randolph and Milton Webster, the black leaders of the Sleeping Car Porters union and announced that either the two men be given rooms in the hotel or he would pull the convention out of the building. They got rooms.

Yet 10 years later, at the San Francisco convention, Meany angrily demanded to know "who the hell appointed you the guardian of the Negro members" when Randolph demanded greater representation for black trade unionists.

And long after Meany committed the full force of the AFL-CIO to the lobbying effort for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, he refused to pressure the building trades unions to integrate.

Throughout his reign as head of the giant labor federation, Meany maintained control through personal strength. Even his most vocal critics in the AFL-CIO could count on Meany's help when it came to pushing trade union matters with the government.

And because of this, few union presidents on the AFL-CIO's ruling executive council were willing openly to challenge Meany on federation policy positions.

By the time the 85-year-old Meany announced his retirement, howver, even his closest allies conceded he had "stayed around a little too long."

For Meany, who came to Washington before any current member of Congress and whose career spanned seven presidencies, both politics and economics had drastically changed in recent years. He had not.