Dick Meister: Sit down, punk!

Pub date February 2, 2012
SectionBruce Blog

By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

I spotted a forgotten hero at the memorial service for SF labor leader Walter Johnson the other day, a true but largely unacknowledged hero of the anti-Vietnam War movement – Art Carter, former head of the AFL-CIO’s Contra Costa Labor Council.

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 from the Bay Area. 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 – and, believe me, it was indeed brave – 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 stand 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 a 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 backer of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, for instance, as are many other AFL-CIO leaders and members who can cite Carter as an inspiration.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.