Sit Down, Punk!

by Dick Meister, February 9, 2012

I spotted a forgotten hero at the memorial service for the nationally prominent San Francisco labor leader Walter Johnson recently, a true but largely unacknowledged hero of the anti-Vietnam War movement — Art Carter, former head of an AFL-CIO labor council in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The AFL-CIO, you might recall, was a major and outspoken supporter of that damned war which was waged as a key part of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The AFL-CIO held tenaciously to its unqualified support of the war, whether it was being waged by a long-time labor ally, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, or by his anti-labor Republican successor, Richard Nixon.

It was in 1969, at the AFL-CIO's national convention in Atlantic City, that Carter, a 28-year-old delegate, dared stand up to oppose a resolution unconditionally supporting the Vietnam War and the Vietnam policies of then-President Nixon, which delegates had loudly cheered when a guest speaker, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, had spelled them out. The measure was presented by hawkish AFL-CIO President George Meany and ultimately opposed by only six of the 700 delegates — including, of course, Art Carter.

Much to the open disgust and anger of Meany and most delegates, Carter offered a substitute resolution that urged the AFL-CIO “to exercise all possible influence and persuasion on the national administration to effect an immediate major reduction of American military involvement in Vietnam and to bring the Vietnam War to a speedy end. “

Carter called his proposed measure “a rather modest resolution” that came from his members — “working men whose sons have either just returned from Vietnam or who face going to Vietnam.”

He urged the AFL-CIO 's national leaders to take a critical look at the government's Vietnam policies rather than “giving carte blanche to a president to do anything he regards as in the national interest.” Carter followed that with a proposed resolution condemning the Nixon administration's Vietnam policies that got but one delegate's vote — his.

Boy, did the stuff hit the fan, as I and other reporters from around the country rushed forward to question the young renegade. It was big news, someone inside the AFL-CIO actually challenging the imperious George Meany, who was rarely challenged within labor circles.

Consider the situation. There was Carter, a delegate from a small, nationally obscure labor council, surrounded by hostile men at least twice his age and faced with the barely concealed animosity of a 75-year-old who was known nationwide as “Mr. Labor.” How dare Carter question Meany and the other labor elders?

Meany, at the convention podium, snapped back at Carter immediately. He derided Carter and others who sought “peace at any price,” equated their suggestion for a reduction of forces in Vietnam with surrender and claimed that would result in “the kind of peace you get in the jail house.” Carter tried to respond, but Meany abruptly ruled him out of order, and Carter was forced to move away from the floor microphone and resume his seat amid noisy catcalls and angry shouts of “sit down! sit down!”

Carter was hardly a wild-eyed radical, just an intelligent young man of liberal bent calling for a peaceful solution to an ugly, futile war that had already left many Americans dead. Yet, he asked reporters, with an air of angry futility, “Did you hear what they called me? Young punk, that's what they said: Sit down, punk!”

Although Carter's brave stand didn't directly alter the AFL-CIO's war mongering, or that of others, it couldn't help but have an impact on millions of Americans both inside and outside the labor movement.

Just a few days after the AFL-CIO convention adjourned, as many as three million people in more than 200 cities took part in marches and other demonstrations to demand immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. It was the largest peace demonstration ever held up to that time.

Although the precise effect of Carter's courageous action is not clear, it undoubtedly did help inspire many others to openly oppose or at least seriously question the government's Vietnam policies and pressure the AFL-CIO and others to at least tone down their support of the war.

In the context of the time, Art Carter's was indeed an heroic act. Thankfully, today's AFL-CIO leaders bear little resemblance to Cold Warrior Meany and his cohorts. The AFL-CIO's current president, Richard Trumka, is an outspoken supporter of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, for instance, as are many other AFL-CIO leaders and members who can cite Art Carter as an inspiration.

Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.

3 Responses to Sit Down, Punk!

  1. Chuck Becker Reply

    February 10, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    “Meany, at the convention podium, snapped back at Carter immediately. He derided Carter and others who sought “peace at any price,” equated their suggestion for a reduction of forces in Vietnam with surrender and claimed that would result in “the kind of peace you get in the jail house.”

    Is the labor movement stronger today than it was when George Meany ran things? Are you familiar with the term “Pyrfhic Victory”? Is America stronger and more equitable and more prosperous now, or when George Meany ran the labor movement?

    Man, you can debate philosophy from now until the cows come home. But I’ve asked the pertinent questions, and the truth is contained in the answers. Things don’t make sense, they’ve never made sense, it’s just life. Those who are good at it get ahead, and those who aren’t fall behind.

    Somewhere along the line, we screwed the pooch. Now we’re having to pull ourselves out of the bog. Lord grand that it’s a long time before America has to go through this again, because it’s not going to be pretty.

    • Chuck Becker Reply

      February 10, 2012 at 11:27 pm

      Yeah, sorry, should be “Pyrrhic”.

  2. Harvey Reading Reply

    February 13, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    The union movement died with enactment, and enforcement in the 50s and 60s, of Taft-Hartley, passed in the late 40s. It coasted along on its earlier momentum for another 12 or 13 years, but by 1970, it was a ghost of its former self. For all intents and purposes, it by then was in reality nothing more than a major funder for the democrapic party. Labor leaders, like Meany, by then had come to identify more with management need more than with those of workers. Working Class people themselves had fallen for the Chamber of Commerce con proclaiming them members of the middle class, and began believing that what was good for business was good for them.

    By the time the 70s rolled around, postal workers and transit workers were about the only ones courageous enough to back their demands with real stands and walk off the job. Auto workers — particularly Chrysler workers, pre-Iaccoca — were capitulating to management, and the Chrysler bailout under Iaccoca was the end of auto workers as a real force in the labor movement. By the early 80s, the situation had deteriorated so badly that Reagan felt free to fire striking air traffic controllers, something no president would have dared do as late as the 60s.

    “Somewhere along the line, we screwed the pooch” is such a vacuous statement, suggesting that it all happened on its own, which is exactly what rich people want workers to believe. And, there aint no damned “lord” involved at all. Until the Working Class awakens, once and for all, and abandons kaputalism, permanently, these cycles of boom and bust, of worker rights and worker slavery, will continue, as they have since the evil kaputalist system supplanted feudalism and ensured that former serfs would remain under control of the wealthy.

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