Biographical / Historical
Joseph Lane Kirkland was born in Camden, South Carolina on March 12, 1922, the son of Randolph Withers and Louise Richardson Kirkland. He attended Newberry College in 1940 and graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1942. During World War II, Kirkland served as a deck officer on board merchant ships and was a member of the National Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots of America. Near the end of the war, he became a licensed master mariner and at the end of the war entered the U.S. Navy's Hydrographic Office as a nautical scientist. In the evenings he attended Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 1948.
In 1948, Kirkland joined the research staff of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), working there throughout the early 1950s. After the AFL and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) merged in 1955, Kirkland became associate director of the Social Security Department. From 1958 to 1960, Kirkland served as director of research and education for the International Union of Operating Engineers. He became the executive assistant to AFL-CIO President George Meany in 1961. In 1969, Kirkland was elected secretary-treasurer of the federation upon the resignation of William Schnitzler and succeeded Meany as president in 1979. Kirkland served as president of the AFL-CIO until his retirement from office in August 1995. He died on August 14, 1999, of lung cancer at his home in Washington, D.C. at the age of 77. He was survived by his wife, Irena (nee Neumann), and five children from his previous marriage to Edith Draper Hollyday.
As president, Kirkland focused on workers' rights on an international level, from South Africa to Poland, as well as on issues affecting U.S. workers, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and social security. He also helped to unify the labor movement; some of the country's largest unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO in the 1980s: the United Auto Workers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the United Mine Workers, and others. During his presidency, Kirkland expanded the George Meany Center for Labor Studies, started the Labor Institute for Public Affairs, and put into place programs to eliminate conflict between unions engaged in organizing drives. In 1993, Kirkland was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, considered to be the country's highest civilian honor.
Gary M. Fink, ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Labor (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984), p. 336.
"Lane Kirkland, Former AFL-CIO Head, Dies at 77," The Outlook, vol. 56, no. 3 (July-September 1999; "Lane Kirkland: A Warrior for Working Families," Inside the AFL-CIO, September 10, 1999.
Ibid; "Former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland dies at 77," Labor Record, vol. 68, no. 14 (August 26, 1999).
Ibid; James B. Parks, "Remembering Lane Kirkland," America at Work, September 1999; "AFL-CIO President Emeritus Lane Kirkland Dies at 77," BCTGM News, vol. 1, no. 5. September/October 1999.