[Documents menu] Documents menu
Date: Sun, 15 Aug 1999 22:02:18 -0700
From: ellen_s@sirius.com (ellen starbird)
Subject: Re: Eulogy

Lane Kirkland Eulogy

By Ellen Starbird
15 August 1999

I don't know, I always sort of felt sorry for Lane Kirkland. He always seems so mismatched as a leader, such a victim of timing and circumstances beyond his control. Even his death had the misfortune to be diminished by a coincidence not of his own making. He died on the same day as another Southerner, baseball legend Pee Wee Reese, whose obituary beat him to the top of the fold in the New York Times.

Pee Wee (for you baseball naive) was a shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He left the team in 42 to serve in the Navy during World War II. On the ship home from Guam, he found out the Dodgers had hired Jackie Robinson --a shortstop. Finding out your boss has replaced you is a big swallow for anybody. But the Kentucky native, arguably the greatest shortstop in the history of the game, did return to the Dodgers and the indisputable Jackie Robinson became his team mate on first base.

When fellow Dodger and southerner Dixie Walker circulated a petition to have Robinson removed from the team Pee Wee Reese, the team Captain (a position to which the other players elect) refused to sign it, and set a tone for tolerance. When the Atlanta Braves heckled Reese in particular for comingling in violation of southern mores he did not return the jeers. But in one of baseball's great moments; as though he suddenly remembered something of real consequence, Reese strolled over to Robinson. Placing a hand on his shoulder, Reese confided with him, 'talking him up' until the Braves feel silent. In that nascent era of integration, Reese was more than a baseball legend. He was a role model for shop stewards in how to educate slow learning Euro-Americans in a venue where a pop in the chops gets you tossed from the game. Together Reese and Robinson led the Dodgers to the 55 World Series victory. Perhaps more enduringly; they gave a nation an on the job working example of just exactly how the good get crowned with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

Unlike Reese, Kirkland never led us into a championship season at the helm of the AFL-CIO. Perhaps the timing was wrong, and he never really had a chance to. In the era of globalization and mechanization he seemed content to let multinational corporation dismantle the U.S. manufacturing base and ship it to Third World sweatshops, pink sliping his very constituency out from under him. Somehow he seemed befuddled by the newfangledness of it all. From a distance (the only glimpse a worker ever got of him) it almost seemed like he couldn't keep his eye on the ball; as though he couldn't keep his head in the game.

Kirkland himself identified his greatest accomplishment, accepting the ILWU, the Teamsters and the UMW back into the house of labor. (Some unions were tossed for not excluding Communists from their leadership nor membership, the Teamsters were the example of corruption getting the same heave ho.)

The other accomplishment he is said to be most proud of is the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Out of kindness one hopes his failing health prevented him from grasping the senseless ethnic carnage and depravation that accomplishment fated upon people for whom he had no elected right to bestow such misery. According to the New York Times obituary his administration spent more of the AFL-CIO members' money on international interloping then was allocated to organizing in the U.S.A., civil rights and workers' health and safety.

Almost invariably Kirkland's brand of international action was to support the U.S. government position, which was invariable the position of corporate America. Their vision was a world economically and militaritarily dominated, facilitating corporate expropriation and the exploitation in particular of Third World workers. Unlike Pee Wee Reese, poor Lane never seemed to grasp the field was big enough for more than one brilliant shortstop, that workers in other countries could be teammates, allies to workers in this one, and that competing among ourselves would cost dearly. Subordinating foreign workers to U.S. government policy as a patriotic obligation was the best strategy he could muster most of the time.

Only once was the rank and file movement in the U.S. able to direct Lane Kirkland to higher ground. By supporting the South African struggle for apartheid the rank and file, particularly Afro-American rank and file and union leaders, we were able to push Kirkland to the correct side of history in that region alone. Kirkland may more fondly remember his victory over Communism in Poland, but I am more proud of the way workers in this country exercised their democratic union rights and led their AFL-CIO President to support union rights in South Africa. Ultimately the South African unions played a crucial role in ending apartheid.

In the end Kirkland was right that international relations is of paramount concern to the welfare of U.S. workers, but wrong about how to go about it. That relationship building with fellow workers from a different culture just seemed to elude him; making him a rubber stamp too often to misguided state department policy.

I guess he just didn't watch enough baseball.

Ellen Starbird

[World History Archives]     [Gateway to World History]     [Images from World History]     [Hartford Web Publishing]