Kirkland, anticommunist

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Mon Aug 16 07:20:10 PDT 1999

Wall Street Journal - August 16, 1999


By Adrian Karatnycky. Mr. Karatnycky, president of Freedom House, was an assistant to Lane Kirkland from 1991-1993 and worked for the AFL-CIO Department of International Affairs in the 1980s.

Lane Kirkland, who died Saturday at age 77, left an indelible mark on American domestic politics, played a central role in contributing to the collapse of communism, and was an influential non-governmental leader of the movement to expand democracy and human rights abroad.

As leader of the 13 million-member AFL-CIO, Kirkland headed the U.S. labor movement through three Republican administrations and the first years of the Clinton presidency. A child of the New Deal, he believed in the power of government to eliminate suffering and was a strong proponent of social and economic programs. Such unabashedly liberal views put him at loggerheads with the Reagan administration's agenda to cut taxes and reduce the size and scope of government.

At root, however, Kirkland was a patriotic centrist, who worked relentlessly for bipartisan consensus in foreign policy. His patriotism led him to staunchly oppose the anti-American rhetoric of the New Left during the Vietnam War and to resist the left's cultural extremism, identity politics and political correctness, which he blamed for the failure of the Democrats to win the presidency for all but four years between 1972 and 1992.

Working alongside AFL-CIO boss George Meany from 1960 until 1979, when he took the helm, Kirkland was a cerebral man of deep principle and unwavering commitment to his beliefs. At the core of those beliefs was the view that ordinary working people, not elites, were responsible for significant changes in human history. He consistently argued for U.S. policies that would strengthen democratic movements, including labor unions around the world. And he marshaled labor's influence and resources behind democratic labor unions in the Philippines, Chile, South Africa, Nicaragua and South Korea, helping to open up those closed societies.

But it was for his role in the struggle against communism for which Kirkland will be best remembered. His staunch anti-communism led him to support dissidents like Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Russia, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia -- and, most of all, Lech Walesa, leader of Poland's Solidarity trade union. From the time martial law was declared in Poland in December 1981 until Solidarity reemerged in June 1989 with a sweeping electoral victory, the AFL-CIO funneled millions of dollars in aid to the underground movement in the form of printing presses, mimeographs machines, and direct financial assistance to support thousands of activists and hundreds of clandestine anti-communist publications.

After the collapse of communism, Kirkland pressed the Bush administration and Congress to embark on a large-scale program of aid and assistance to Eastern Europe. In the early 1980s, Kirkland helped to create the National Endowment for Democracy, a federally funded foundation that assists democratic forces around the world.

Kirkland's anti-communism, which emerged in part from his involvement in American labor's struggle to resist communist influences from within, was reinforced by his wife Irena Neumann Kirkland, who survives him. A Czech Jew who survived Auschwitz and was later imprisoned by the Communists, Mrs. Kirkland's life experiences made her husband's opposition to tyranny and advocacy of human rights and democracy more immediate and personal.

While left-wing critics unfairly derided him for his "obsession" with the struggle against communism, Mr. Kirkland understood that the defeat of communism was essential to securing a more peaceful and prosperous world. History has proven him right.

His left-leaning opponents also unfairly blamed him for a stagnating union membership. But Kirkland understood that the forces of the global economy and technological change were at the root of the labor movement's inability to grow. Not surprisingly, in the four years since insurgents headed by John Sweeney took over the leadership of the AFL-CIO, the proportion of the American workforce that is unionized has fallen from 15.5% to 13.9%.

In the end, all Americans, not just union members, should be grateful to Lane Kirkland. He understood that the world was in the midst of a fundamental transformation away from dictatorship and toward democracy, and he did more than any other American outside government to promote that welcome trend.

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