Date: Sun, 15 Aug 1999 22:02:18 -0700
From: email@example.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
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
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.