"Kirkland is old-fashioned enough to believe that people who attack him are enemies, not merely friends with a grievance."
Mix high intellectual power with street smarts and there emerge the features that distinguish Lane Kirkland, the new president of the AFL-CIO. Thanks to that rare mix, Kirkland can deal as effectively with bureaucrats and business executives as with labor skates. So with a little luck, labor, under its new boss, can continue its traditional role as a force for economic well-being and political stability in this country.
The past role of American labor is not in doubt. Alone among the major working-class movements of the world, the AFL-CIO has favored free enterprise over socialism. Its leaders have been patriotic to a fault.
Since its founding in 1881, the movement has had five presidents (including Kirkland). The United States in that time has had 19 presidents. In a country devoted to chop and change, labor provides a rock of solidity.
In the past few years, labor's prestige has undoubtedly declined. Many of us would list among the many virtues of Kirkland's predecessor, George Meany, that he is not a withered swinger. But he has been out of touch with the modern idiom and, with labor on the defensive, business hawks have indulged themselves in a spot of union-busting.
Kirkland has the qualities to set the balance right. His formal intellectual capacities stick out. He enjoys the gift of tongues and once wrote speeches for that most noble of orators, Adlai Stevenson. He is at ease in history and philosophy and economics. It is typical that in his maiden speech as president he invited the Teamsters and the Auto Workers to rejoin the AFL-CIO by saying: "All sinners belong in the church."
The street smarts come less obviously into play. But Kirkland did not rise from a researcher's job to be head of the federation only by being the protege of Meany. He also made strategic alliances with the bosses of the affiliated unions. It was not for nothing that Kirkland testified recently to the character of Anthony Scotto, the Brooklyn waterfront boss recently convicted on charges of extortion.
Then there is the close rapport he enjoys with Paul Hall, the tough-talking leader of the Seafarers Union and senior vice president of the AFL-CIO. Hall provides the muscle -- and I use the word in the literal sense -- for not a few of labor's tougher battles. He also cuts a political figure.
With a nod from Kirkland, Hall recently organized a labor committee for President Carter. The White House exults that the committee is a source of political strength. A more reliable view is that the committee is a device for holding labor's barons together. That way they can deal as a group with Carter or -- if circumstances warrant -- move as a group to Kennedy.
The Kirkland method, as that example suggests, is to hold his power base together, the better to deal with leaders of other power groups in shaping national policy and the economic climate. If possible, Kirkland prefers to negotiate and strike bargains.
Last summer he won the AFL-CIO endorsement of the arms control treaty with Russia. In return he got from the administration commitments for additional defense spending worth millions to labor.
At the end of September, Kirkland announced a "national accord" with the administration on economic policy. Under the accord, Kirkland will come off Meany's tactic of constantly assaulting the administration on economic policy. He has agreed to labor's participation with business and public members in a pay board set up to fight inflation. But the administration in turn committed itself to legislative and economic measures dear to labor. And as head of the pay board, Kirkland has his old friend, Prof. John Dunlop of Harvard.
But if Kirkland prefers to deal, he is not too proud to fight. Meany himself was not a more doughty foe of the communists than Kirkland, or a beakier hawk on Vietnam, or a more resolute opponent of George McGovern in the Democratic Party. Kirkland is old-fashioned enough to believe that people who attack him are enemies, not merely friends with a grievance.
If the business community wants a fight, if the executives keep up the narrow union-busting spirit, Kirkland will be putting thumbs into eyes and knees into groins. But it doesn't have to be that way. If business has the wit to see the longer-term national interest, if it can develop an ability to cooperate with labor, then Americans will look back to this week, and the accession of Kirkland to the leadership of the AFL-CIO, as a genuine national break, something to be thankful for.
The reference to Mr. Pickwick in a recent column was Pickwickian, indeed. I meant Mr. Micawber, and I regret the slip.