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The East: RFE/RL Pays Tribute To The Last Great Liberal Anti-Communist

By Tom Dine

Prague, 17 August 1999 (RFERL) -- Lane Kirkland, the longtime leader of the American labor movement, a staunch supporter of workers rights in Eastern Europe, and a firm friend of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, died on Saturday at the age of 77.

His passing removes from the scene the last great liberal anti-communist, one of that remarkable generation of people who opposed communism not in the name of capitalism but rather in the name of democracy and human freedom.

During a 1995 interview, Lane Kirkland expressed his position best: "The role of trade unions," he said, "is to try to keep big people from kicking around little people without a reaction," adding that "your capacity to defend yourself is far greater if you're organized."

During his tenure as president of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of International Organizations (AFL/CIO) from 1979 to 1995, Kirkland always stood up for the rights of workers and hence the rights of everyone not only in the United States but elsewhere as well.

Kirkland was perhaps best known for his backing of the Solidarity movement in Poland. He provided money, guidance and moral support to a movement few initially believed had any chance of success. And he championed it in the West as one of the best chances to overcome communist authoritarianism in Eastern Europe.

On his death, President Bill Clinton recalled that Kirkland's efforts in support of free trade unionism in Poland and elsewhere had "helped hasten the fall of the Iron Curtain while standing up for working men and women at home." Earlier, the president had awarded him the highest civilian decoration in the U.S., the Medal of Freedom.

Less well known perhaps are Kirkland's consistent backing for the great Soviet human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, the state of Israel and for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. I got to know him during my work at AIPAC and can testify that no one was more supportive of Israel, precisely because of that country's commitment to democracy and freedom in a region that has known so little of it.

But Lane Kirkland was also one of the greatest friends of RFE/RL. During his long career, he spoke out frequently on the importance of the free flow of information in making other freedoms possible. He served as a member of the U.S. Board for International Broadcasting. No one could spend much time with him before hearing him call for an even larger broadcasting effort to countries where freedom was under attack.

In recent years, Kirkland had a special tie with RFE/RL. His wife Irena was born in Czechoslovakia and survived the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. And he often told me how proud he was that RFE/RL was now broadcasting from Prague.

Consequently, all of us at RFE/RL mourn his passage, but in doing so, we should remember what Lane Kirkland would be saying if he were still among us: There can be no let-up in the struggle for freedom, for the defense of individual men and women against the power of the state or other large organizations.

That is certainly our task. And in Lane Kirkland's memory, I pledge that we will continue to do it.

Tom Dine is the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).