George Meany, 85, the blunt and gruff-spoken former Bronx plumber who played a giant role in American public life for decades as the leader and personification of the American labor movement, died here last night.

Meany had been in ill health and confined to a wheelchair for months before retiring in November as president of the AFL-CIO, the huge labor federation he forged almost 25 years ago.

The labor leader's three daughters were with him when he died at 9:55 p.m. in the intensive-care unit at George Washington University Hospital. Death was attributed to cardiac arrest.

Leaders in politics and government, labor and civil rights began last night in the hours after Meany's death to issue tributes and eulogies to a man they recognized as a towering figure.

"He was a great American and all of us will miss him," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) In New York, where Meany got his start in the labor movement, Gov. Hugh Carey ordered that all flags on state buildings be flown at half-staff today.

"A giant has fallen and freedom has lost a friend," said Labor Secretary Ray Marshall. "I have lost a dear and wise adviser and we have all lost a great American, a man of deep compassion, conviction and strength."

Marshall said Meany "leaves a legacy to all of us of a better, more decent and equitable society."

Praise also came from many of Marshall's predecessors who had served in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Meany was "a great American," said George P. Shultz, who served in the Nixon cabinet. "I loved him."

A plumber who was also the son of a union plumber, Meany, whose voice never fully lost the strains of the Bronx, was pragmatic, hard-headed and nonideological in his role as the nation's Mr. Labor.

A vigorous advocate of the American worker, he also firmly endorsed the American capitalist system.

With his stern and staunch anti-communism came a variety of allegiances that he managed to reconcile in a way that allowed him to be at the same time the friend and foe of eight American presidents.

Known within the labor movement as a consolidator and organizer rather than an innovator, Meany was recognized as the only man with the ability to keep together the feuding factions of the nation's labor movement.

In particular, he was known for his grasp of the link between legislation and politics, and for his own skills as a lobbyist.

After putting down his plumber's wrench in 1922 to become business agent for his Bronx local, Meany was chosen 12 years later as president of the New York State Federation of Labor. In one year he won passage of 72 pro-labor bills.

Arriving in Washington in 1939 as secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), he became the craft union federation's president 13 years later.

After hammering out the historic 1955 merger of the AFL and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which had broken away in 1935, Meany became the first president of the newly formed AFL-CIO.

Throughout the 1960s, Meany steadfastly wielded the considerable legislative clout of his giant organization in behalf of the civil rights legislation being considered by Congress.

He was a "quiet, effective champion for the cause of civil rights," Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP said last night. "The world will note and long remember the good things he has done for the cause of justice," Hooks said.

The jowly, golf-playing labor leader suffered setbacks. His cherished goal of full unity in the labor movement was never realized. The departure from the federation in 1968 of the United Auto Workers was a significant loss.

UAW President Douglas Fraser praised Meany last night for "the courage and the tenacity" he showed.

"The longer he led the trade union movement," Fraser said, "the harder he fought for equity and justice."

For George Meany the last hurrah came in November, when he left the presidency of the AFL-CIO and said goodbye to the organization he had built. p

"To God go my prayers," he said " . . . of thanks for granting me more than one man's share of happiness and rewards, and prayers for His continued blessing on this nation and on this movement and on each of you."

The steel-blue eyes that for decades had stared down foes now filled with tears. The voice that choked off opposition with a stern syllable was now itself choked with emotion.

Many delegates wept with Meany though he tried to gavel them to order, they would not obey.

In 1919 Meany married Eugenis A. McMahon, who had also been active in the labor movement. She died early last year and aides reported the once bluff and bear-like Meany depressed and dispirited, over the holiday season, his first in years without her.