Legislative Conference, Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), (16 September 1977) Washington, D.C.
Former plumber from the Bronx, George Meany (1894 – 1980) became president of the New York State Federation of Labor in 1934. In one year alone, he helped pass over 72 pro-labor bills in Congress. Elected president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1952 after the death of William Green, Meany merged the AFL with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1955. 1 As president, Meany dubbed the AFL-CIO the “people’s lobby” because it spoke for average citizens and helped build a democratic society by lobbying politicians and combating corruption.2
Meany also addressed the state of women and unemployment in the labor movement’s political agenda. The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) was founded in 1974 to help women attain leadership positions in the workforce. Shortly after its formation, the CLUW worked with the AFL-CIO to advance women’s rights in the labor movement with a focus on passing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). After the AFL-CIO endorsed the ERA in 1975, Meany was derided as a “closet feminist.”3
The public was divided over the ERA leading up to Meany’s 1977 address on women and labor. Pro-ERA organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and ERAmerica, a coalition of 80 organizations, helped make Indiana the 35th state to ratify the ERA.4 But prominent opposition to the ERA included, among others, Phyllis Schlafly’s STOP ERA, the National Council of Catholic Women, and the Daughters of the American Revolution.5 Others opposed the ERA because they believed women needed protective labor laws that the ERA might erode.6
Meany’s address was delivered at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., on September 16, 1977. Despite the fact that the speech was given before the CLUW, Meany emphasized the goals and future directions of the labor movement in general. Meany praised the organization for its commitment to “all working people”7 and argued that the AFL-CIO and the CLUW must work together for “full employment, minimum wage, labor law reform, pregnancy benefits, [and] national health insurance.” He argued that these were “not women’s issues,” but “labor issues, trade union issues.”8 Meany stood out at the time for taking women’s labor issues and the ERA so seriously.9 Meany used humor in expressing solidarity with feminists in his response to criticism that he was a “closet feminist”: “If supporting a living wage for all workers makes me a feminist, move over, sisters. I’ve been called a lot worse.”10
In addition to the ERA, Meany expressed strong support for Carter’s Labor Reform Bill in this speech. The country was facing an economic recession through much of the 1970s. Carter’s Labor Reform Bill would have made it more difficult for employers to compete against unions. Meany believed that Carter’s support for pro-union policies would punish the employers who “made a mockery” of the National Labor Relations Act passed 42 years before his address.11 The bill would guarantee that workers could freely join unions and collectively bargain. Yet, Carter’s bill ultimately failed in the Senate.12
On July 9, 1978, a year after the CLUW speech, Meany spoke at the national ERA march and rally in favor of the ERA, promising that the AFL-CIO “will continue – at the national and state level – to fight for ERA.”13 At this time, 35 of the 38 states needed to ratify the ERA had passed the amendment, but ERA supporters were almost out of time to secure the votes. The amendment had to be ratified within seven years of its introduction. Women’s organizations such as NOW worked to repeal the seven-year deadline, and on October 2, 1978, Congress extended the ratification deadline to June 30, 1982. Despite the extension, support for the ERA lost momentum and the ERA fell three states shy of ratification.14
Although the ERA failed, Meany is remembered for his various reform efforts and as the “personification of the American labor movement.”15 He died at age 85 from cardiac arrest at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C.16
- Martin Weil and Warren Brown, “Labor Leader George Meany Dies of Cardiac Arrest at 85,” Washington Post, January 11, 1980, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1980/01/11/labor-leader-george-meany-dies-of-cardiac-arrest-at-85/1efcac53-8ab0-4e76-82e7-061d61cb2d60/?utm_term=.393f061a9712.
- “George Meany,” AFL-CIO America’s Unions, 2019, https://aflcio.org/about/history/labor-history-people/george-meany.
- A.H. Rankin, “Archive: Growing Acceptance for the Coalition of Labor Women,” New York Times, October 19, 1977, https://www.nytimes.com/1977/10/19/archives/ah-raskin-growing-acceptance-for-the-coalition-of-union-women.html.
- Equal Rights Amendment: A Workshop Guide (District of Columbia: National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, 1977), https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_details%7C2520160.
- Alyssa Samek, “Mobility, Citizenship, and ‘American Women on the Move’ in the 1977 International Women’s Year Torch Relay,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 103, no. 3 (2017): 207-229.
- Timothy J. Minchin, Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO Since 1979 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 34-35.
- George Meany, “Legislative Conference, Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW),” para. 31.
- Ibid., para. 29.
- “Gender Equality,” United Nations, n.d., https://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/gender-equality/.
- Meany, “Legislative Conference,” para.11.
- Ibid., para. 21.
- Charles W. Baird, “Labor Law Reform: Lessons from History,” Cato Journal 10, no. 1 (1990): 176.
- George Meany, “National ERA March and Rally, 1978 Jul 9,” AFL-CIO Record, Office of the President George Meany Files (1940-1980), Box 85, Folder 78, George Meany Memorial AFL-CIO Archives, Special Collections, Hornbake Library, University of Maryland, College Park, MD.
- Allison L. Held, Sheryl L. Herndon, and Danielle M. Stager, “The Equal Rights Amendment: Why the Era Remains Legally Viable and Properly Before the States,” William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice 113, no. 3 (1997): 117.
- Weil and Brown, “Labor Leader George Meany Dies of Cardiac Arrest at 85.”