Ever since he persuaded the AFL-CIO executive council to stay neutral in the presidential campaign, Labor Chieftain George Meany has become less and less neutral. Shortly after the July executive-council meeting, he was seen golfing with President Nixon. "If he is really neutral," growled William Winpisinger, a vice president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, "he owes McGovern four hours of golf." In a speech, Meany accused the Democratic nominee of running down big labor: "He's talking about you, he's talking about me." After that he sent a letter to state and local AFL-CIO offices, questioning McGovern's "credibility and confidence." Finally, at an executive-council meeting in Chicago last week that was expected to consider presidential politics, the subject was not even brought up. George Meany let it be known that the issue was settled; there would be no endorsement of anyone.
But the subject was far from closed for a lot of other union leaders who had their say in Chicago hotel lobbies and corridors, even if they were not allowed to speak in formal session. Like Meany, they have spent almost four years fighting Nixonomics; unlike Meany, they see no reason to let up on the President now. What has Nixon done to deserve it? In their view, his policies have clamped down on wages, boosted unemployment, sent capital fleeing abroad and caused the virtual disappearance of the electronics industrymuch to the dismay of the powerful machinists union. Yet, by staying neutral, Meany and his allies in the steelworkers union are helping Nixon get reelected; some of the building trades unions, in fact, are expected to endorse the President. The dissident union chieftains are frankly baffled. They wonder if Meany knows something they do not. "He hasn't been wrong before," says a machinist official who supports McGovern. "He's always known what's the right thing to do."
Meany continues to take occasional swipes at Nixon, but his hatred of McGovern and what he stands for in American politics is too visceral to be overcome. At 78, Meany is set in his ways, but he also has his ear to the ground. He detects discontent with McGovern among labor's rank and file, and he has skillfully exploited it. Nor does he want to implicate big laborhis big laborin what he expects to be a disastrous Democratic defeat. Why spend our money, he has said, to "help a political party commit suicide?" Better to drift with the political tides and make the best deal possible with the sure winner. Says an industrial union leader: "He believes he can bring Nixon around, that he can do business with the guy in a way that will serve labor's best interests over the next four years."