Labor leader. Lane Kirkland was born on March 12, 1922, in Camden, to the cotton buyer Randolph Withers Kirkland and Louise Richardson. The family had deep roots in the state. Kirkland’s great-great grandfather Thomas Jefferson Withers was a signer of the Ordinance of Secession and the uncle and legal guardian of Mary Boykin Chesnut, author of Diary from Dixie. Withers’s son-in-law, William Lenox Kirkland, died from wounds suffered at the Battle of Hawes Shop in Virginia in 1864. His son, Thomas Jefferson Kirkland, served as a South Carolina state senator from 1894 to 1896.
Lane Kirkland grew up in Newberry and attended Newberry College for a year. He entered the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1940 and, after graduation in 1942, served as a chief mate on vessels transporting cargo to battlefronts. On June 10, 1944, he married Edith Draper Hollyday. The couple had five daughters before divorcing in 1972. After the war Kirkland enrolled in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. In 1948 American Federation of Labor (AFL) president William Green, who was conducting a seminar at the school, informed Kirkland that there was a job opening in the research department of the AFL. After receiving his degree, Kirkland joined the AFL, focusing his attention on pension and Social Security issues. In 1958 he become the director of research for the International Union of Operating Engineers, but he returned to the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in 1960 to serve as executive assistant to President George Meany. Kirkland became secretary-treasurer of the organization in 1969. When Meany retired, Kirkland was elected president of the AFL-CIO on November 19, 1979.
Kirkland’s first priority as the new head of organized labor was to unite with unions not in the AFL-CIO. During the course of his presidency he achieved reaffiliation with the AFL-CIO of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the United Auto Workers, the United Mine Workers, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. In addition, both the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Writers Guild of America, East joined the federation for the first time. Long an opponent of state-dominated totalitarian unions of both the left and the right, Kirkland turned his attention to providing financial, material, and moral support to the Polish Solidarity movement that emerged from the Gdansk shipyard strike of August 1980. Over the next decade the American trade union movement played a significant role in overcoming Communist rule in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Although challenged in his last years in office by those in the labor movement concerned with declining membership, Kirkland throughout his sixteen-year leadership oversaw increased participation by African Americans, women, and other groups previously neglected within various unions and within the AFL-CIO. In 1994 Kirkland received the Medal of Freedom, this nation’s highest civilian award. He retired as AFL-CIO president in 1995 and died in Washington, D.C., on August 14, 1999, survived by his second wife, Irena Neumann, whom he had married on January 19, 1973.
Kirkland, Lane. Papers. George Meany Memorial Archives, Silver Spring, Maryland.
———. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Sawyer, Kathy. “Lane Kirkland: Made in America and Proud to Wear the Union Label.” Washington Post, July 15, 1984, pp. K1, K4.