Former AFL-CIO President John Sweeney Dies

John Sweeney stood at the left end of American unionism. And for 14 years, he stood atop that world, radicalizing organized labor and America in the process – and not for the better. On February 1, Sweeney, who served as AFL-CIO president during 1995-2009, died of natural causes at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 86. His successor, current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, lamented: “John was a great leader and a true innovator, driving the labor movement forward. We stand on that foundation today as we take on the challenges of inequality, systemic racism and much more.” Such praise embodies what has gone wrong with union leadership. By pouring vast sums of time and money into the coffers of the Democratic Party, and its allied political action committees and nonprofit groups, he moved the needle of American politics well to the left.

Sweeney was born to Irish immigrants on May 5, 1934. The family settled in the Bronx, N.Y., and moved to nearby Yonkers when he was 11. “Growing up, I saw what the union meant for my father,” he recalled in a 2013 speech. “The union won him the wage increases that let him save up $5,000 to buy a home – outside the city, in a promised land called Yonkers.” After graduating from Iona College, he worked as an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and then for a New York City local of the Building Service Employees International Union, the forerunner of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Rising to become SEIU international president in 1980, he and his top aides embarked on a strategy of expansion through organizing and takeovers. During the next 15 years, the union raised its membership from 625,000 to 1.1 million. To a large extent, this was the work of rowdy and at times criminal picketing tactics of the union’s Justice for Janitors campaign.

By 1995, John Sweeney had his eye on the presidency of the AFL-CIO. The incumbent president, Lane Kirkland, reluctantly, was stepping down. An election, the Washington, D.C.-based labor federation first in 40 years, was set for October. Kirkland’s handpicked interim successor, Thomas Donahue, was on the ballot and vulnerable. Sweeney declared himself a candidate, running on a platform of aggressive organizing and political activism. With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, radicalism had an extra appeal. Sweeney defeated Donohue by 7.3 million to 5.6 million, or about 56.5 percent to 43.5 percent. His slate partner, United Mine Workers President Richard Trumka, easily won election as secretary-treasurer.   

Flush with victory, Sweeney called for a doubling of union membership. He traveled the country with the tag line “America needs a raise.” He went all out for member unions, launching voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, and started up a political project called Working America. But composite membership remained pretty much the same. He also downplayed corruption among member unions; for two years, the AFL-CIO used the courts (unsuccessfully) to block the Labor Department’s proposed rule to improve the capability of the LM-2 reporting form to detect union fraud and embezzlement. Unfortunately, he was more successful in legitimizing illegal immigration. In February 2000, the AFL-CIO executive board issued a declaration of support for federal amnesty for migrant workers and family members residing in this country illegally. This represented the final step in a 180-degree reversal of organized labor’s decades-long opposition to mass immigration as a source of undercutting of union wages and benefits. Congress has been unable thus far to enact a full-scale amnesty for unauthorized immigrants, but given President Biden’s flurry of misguided Executive Orders blocking effective border and interior enforcement, congressional action might not be necessary. True to his political leanings, Sweeney and other AFL-CIO leaders during 2009-10 put maximum pressure on Congress to secure passage of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) to socialize much of our health care system.  

Sweeney’s greatest challenge would come from within. In July 2005, a dissenting faction of member unions, believing Sweeney had failed to stem the relative decline in overall membership, walked out of the AFL-CIO’s 50th anniversary convention in Chicago. This coalition, led by former Sweeney understudy Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees since 1996, met two months later in St. Louis to announce their branding as the Change to Win labor federation. The exodus cost the AFL-CIO about a quarter of its members and 10 percent of its income. But as fate would have it, Change to Win could not make good on its lofty membership goals. Moreover, member unions, especially in the health care industry, delivered substandard contracts for their largely Hispanic labor forces; to some extent, this was a legacy of Stern’s autocratic style. Three of the original seven Change to Win unions – the Laborers, the Carpenters, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) portion of UNITE HERE – would leave to rejoin the AFL-CIO. A fourth union, the Communications Workers of America, rejoined the AFL-CIO though without disaffiliating from Change to Win. Yes, Change to Win is still around, but in no way does it even approach the influence of the AFL-CIO.   

John Sweeney stepped down as president in 2009, passing the gavel to Richard Trumka. As president emeritus, he remained active. He advised the AFL-CIO’s officers and executive board, made speeches, and otherwise promoted union interests. He had no regrets about his career path. “I loved what I did,” he said upon receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 from Barack Obama. “I told my kids all the time how happy I was with my work. And, sure, there was a strike once in a while or something. That was really troubling. But, for the most part, satisfying working people was a mission that I had.” Sweeney understood labor issues. And he actually was a decent fellow, the sort of person with whom one might even share a drink or two at an Irish pub. But his radical egalitarian thinking, good intentions aside, worked against the best interests of this country.