Leading labor came easy to Kirkland, reports CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan. In 1979, he took over the reins of the AFL-CIO, the world's largest labor organization, and guided it through a time when big business was king.
He appealed for reunification of the nation's largest and best-known unions under the AFL-CIO because, he said, "all sinners belong in the church." By 1990 he had brought back the United Auto Workers, the Teamsters, the West Coast Longshoremen, Chemical Workers, Mine Workers and Locomotive Engineers.
A man with a quick wit who was also quick to act, he was especially impassioned by the fight for labor during the Reagan administration -- from the firing of air traffic controllers, to the painful downsizing at plants and manufacturing facilities all across the U.S. During his tenure the share of the workforce belonging to unions continued to drop, but Kirkland kept on fighting.
He was an unlikely candidate for such a post. Born into a wealthy Southern family and educated at Georgetown with a focus on international affairs, Kirkland was seen as an intellectual.
In the 1980s, he oversaw a massive financial effort by American workers to keep the Polish Solidarity movement going. In the early 90s, it was his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement that drove a bitter wedge between Labor and the Clinton administration, a fight he lost. But his service to labor was not forgotten -- in 1994, President Clinton awarded Kirkland the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
He resigned as AFL-CIO president four years ago under criticism that he had stayed too long and grown out of touch. Kirkland's last fight was with lung cancer. His wife Irena said his body just gave out. She asked that reporters write that Kirkland was a good man who had done great things.