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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)


George Meany

American Labor Leader


George Meany, American Labor Leader August 16th 2008 marks the 114th birthday of William George Meany (1894-1980), better known as George Meany the American labor movement leader, advisor to seven US Presidents, and long-tenured AFL-CIO union president.

I have not seen George Meany mentioned as a descendant of County Carlow emigrants, but he was one, whether he himself realized it or not. Some months before his death, as he accepted an award from an Irish-American organization, he began his speech with the words, “tonight you honor a grandson of the Meanys of Westmeath.” If I could have been present with the information currently available at Michael Brennan’s County Carlow web site and the Carlow Library, I would have liked to ask him, “The Meanys of Westmeath, OK-- but George, what about the Coogans of Carlow?”
 
His grandmother was Bridget Coogan, born about 1824, the eldest daughter of Matthew and Catharine Nolan Coogan of Ballyloughan. In 1845 Bridget married Lawrence Meany, whose family had roots in County Westmeath. The record of their marriage at St. Andrew’s Church in Bagenalstown lists Lawrence’s surname as Mooney, an English version of the Irish Maonaigh. The couple’s Irishborn children are listed variously with surnames Mooney and Meany in the records of Leighlinbridge, where Bridget and Lawrence lived until they emigrated in 1853: Philip (baptized 1846), Mary (1848), John (1850), and Catherine (1852). George Meany was aware of his Coogan ancestors’ politics even if he did not know where in Ireland they came from.

The years that Bridget and Lawrence spent in Leighlinbridge were marked by poverty and illnesses of their children, the continued effects of the Famine. Like other Famine survivors who immigrated to the US, they rarely spoke of home. But George knew his grandmother’s family name and his grandfather’s trade. According to two of his descendants, when George showed visitors around Manhattan, he often took the opportunity to drive past Coogan’s Bluff and to mention his family’s relationship to James J. Coogan (1844-1916), who developed the Bluff sports area, later renamed the Polo Grounds and then the Giant’s football stadium. Though the legend survives of a “cousin” relationship between James J. and Bridget Coogan Meany and her siblings, I have not yet found a connection between the two families.

But I suspect that Coogan’s Bluff was a natural early inspiration in George Meany’s life. Its developer, James J., was an avid supporter of late-19th-century labor unions. He pioneered the shortening of the work week for New York shop clerks to five and one-half days, and he twice ran for New York City Mayor on union nominations. Trained in the law, he became a wealthy businessman, sports promoter, and real estate entrepreneur, yet he kept his working-class politics and his support for Irish republicanism until his death in the same year that George Meany’s father died.
 
George Meany was one of the eight children of Bridget and Lawrence’s youngest child, Michael Joseph Meany. Born in July 1864 in Harlem, New York City, Michael Meany was named for Bridget’s brother Michael Coogan (1841-1904), who took his first vows as a Cistercian lay brother at Mt. Melleray Abbey, County Waterford, the same week that his Meany nephew was baptized in New York. Young George enjoyed sitting in on the plumbers’ union meetings that his father held in the family’s home in those early days of union organizing. When George decided to leave school in his teen years, Michael insisted that his son continue his education in trade school and apprenticeships. George followed his father, two Meany uncles, and grandfather Lawrence into the plumber’s trade and remained a member of plumbers’ local 463 throughout his career in New York State and Washington, D.C.
 
By 1922, George Meany held an office in the United Association of Plumbers and Steam Fitters. In 1934, he was elected president of the Federation of Labor in New York State, and five years later rose to national office in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). During his years in New York, he successfully lobbied for prolabor legislation in Albany. He first became influential in Washington politics during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s last years in office, when Meany helped shape FDR’s labor policies as a committee appointee and served on the National Labor Relations Board. With the end of WW II, Meany took an active role in helping to strengthen the labor movement in postwar Europe, but he resisted affiliation with socialist organizers and remained a fierce opponent of communism throughout his lifetime. He brought the same political energies to his work with South American labor unions.
 
In 1955, he helped to unite the AFL with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and soon began his lengthy tenure as president of the AFL-CIO, representing the largest, most visible segment of the country’s crafts and trades. In 1957, when the Teamsters proved unwilling to sever their ties with organized crime, Meany expelled their leader, Jimmy Hoffa, along with the Teamsters’ entire membership, from the AFL-CIO.

Meany routed corruption which had been part of unions since their beginnings, while he strengthened labor’s participation in politics. Under President Eisenhower, Meany twice served as a delegate to the UN. Though he sometimes clashed with African-American union officers who wanted the AFL-CIO to speed the work of racial integration, Meany worked tirelessly to persuade presidents and legislators to hold corporations responsible for racial discrimination in employment. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was in part a result of those efforts. This federal law was modeled on a program developed by Meany for his union membership.
 
He always remained a supporter of Israel, and though he voiced early support for the American war in Vietnam, later he candidly admitted that he had made a mistake and withdrew his support. President Lyndon B. Johnson called him from his Washington-suburb home to many a private, informal “chat” in the White House about challenges Johnson faced during the era of Civil Rights activism and anti-Vietnam-War protests that followed the assassination of President Kennedy. Influential in the Democratic Party, Meany advocated protective measures for workers, such as oversight by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He urged the resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon and was outspoken in his criticism of Democrat President Jimmy Carter’s handling of economic problems in the 1970s.

Despite having dropped out of high school, Meany developed a comprehensive sense of economics: he could foresee how a policy decision made in Washington would affect workers’ paychecks or the unemployment rate or inflation months later. Like his grandfather Lawrence Meany, George Meany did not retire until his mid-80s, when failing health and eyesight finally began to diminish the considerable energy his work had always demanded of him. At a Labor Day picnic for union leaders on the White House lawn in 1979, President Carter told his guests that he had spoken by phone with the absent George Meany, who had given his own Labor Day radio broadcast that morning though he was ill with flu. According to the New York Times report of the picnic, Carter said that Meany “was reading my report card, . . . ‘He said if I wouldn’t tell anyone what was on it he wouldn’t either.’ There were three things that a President ‘always has on his mind,’ Mr. Carter said: national security, Congress and Mr. Meany” (NY Times 4 Sept. 1979, page A1).
 
Meany’s long career parallels the rise of one of the great American social and political movements--that of labor. This is a story of progress that began in his Carlow / Westmeath grandparents’ days in Old New York. Meany’s dedication to that movement flowed, I believe, from the cultural memory of his grandparents’ generation, Famine survivors, from their heritage of struggle against oppression. Labor was not the last such movement; civil rights and women’s rights and others followed by mid-century.

But the Labor Movement set standards of integrity and education which benefitted later reform movements. In the 1930s, unions were educating immigrant workers in the English language and encouraging them to educate their children; union newspapers strengthened workers’ communities; union officers spoke out on issues of social justice and called for ethical constraints on business; union members voted reform politicians into office and voted elites out. Reaction against the increased power of labor followed their successes.

The movement that Meany energized is certainly in decline at present, not only because of anti-labor legislation but also because of a resurgence of corporate greed and corruption. Americans will celebrate another Labor Day in a few weeks, and perhaps we will remember better times for workers and George Meany’s role in fostering progress. Michael Meany moved his family to the Bronx before he died. There his son George married Eugenia McMahon in 1919 and built a home in the Pelham area, where the couple began raising three daughters. Eugenia died in March 1979, and George died on the following January 10.

Today, the National Labor College, near the Meany home in Silver Springs, Maryland, educates the public as well as emerging labor leaders. You can find full-length biographies and many articles on George Meany’s work, for example J. C. Goulden’s book Meany (Atheneum,1972) and Archie Robinson’s. George Meany and His Times (Simon and Schuster, 1981). On the Internet you can visit http://www.georgemeany.org/ (The National Labor College, formerly the George Meany Center for Labor Studies) and http://www.nlc.edu/archives/home.html (The George Meany Memorial Archives).

Source: Mary Coogan August 2008


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