John Sweeney (1934–2021)

John Sweeney, who won the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995 as part of a progressive reform leadership slate called New Voice, died earlier this month at the age of eighty-six. He failed in his quest to revive the US labor movement — but he succeeded in pushing the main body of trade unionism firmly to the left.

John Sweeney, then-president of the AFL-CIO, stands during the AFL-CIO convention on July 25, 2005 in Chicago, IL. (Tim Boyle / Getty Images)

The February 1 death of John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO from 1995 to 2009, gives us an opportunity to evaluate the degree to which a reform leadership can have any real impact on the fate of the US labor movement. Despite his sometime radicalism, and that of the talented men and women he advanced to positions of authority within the AFL-CIO, Sweeney’s “New Voice” team could not reverse the decline, in membership and power, of most US trade unions.

But his presidency was not a failure, because he did successfully shift the main body of American trade unionism firmly toward the left, dismantling the Berlin Wall which had for so long divided the leadership of the AFL-CIO from the new social movements, the left-wing intellectuals, and multi-racial America more generally.

By the end of Sweeney’s tenure as AFL-CIO president, and for the first time since the early Cold War, the US labor movement clearly stood on the left flank of the Democratic Party and was part of a political culture increasingly attuned not only to economic inequality, but to the justice demands put forward by women, people of color, and those of varying gender identities. Police unions and a few others remained politically and culturally retrograde, but the AFL-CIO itself had become a much more progressive institution.

John J. Sweeney was born in the Bronx on May 5, 1934 to working-class Irish Catholic immigrants. He did not smoke a cigar, but he seemed cut from the same ethnic cloth and prosaic outlook as another Bronx-born Irish-American unionist, George Meany, a plumber by trade, who led the AFL-CIO for a quarter century after 1955. Meany’s like-minded assistant, Lane Kirkland, would take over in 1980 and occupy the top AFL-CIO spot for another fifteen years.

Sweeney got his first union job in 1960 working for the New York doormen and janitors organized into Local 32BJ of the Building Service Employees International Union, renamed SEIU in 1968. The BSEIU had its biggest locals in Chicago and New York. Both were corrupt, and the membership hardly resembled the militant industrial workers in steel, rubber, and auto who had galvanized the labor movement just a generation before. But there were a lot of these seemingly unheroic service workers, and their numbers could be found virtually everywhere: in municipal government, hospitals, hotels, office towers, schools and colleges, and in every odd corner of the “post-industrial” landscape. Many were Latino and African-American, a majority women.

The SEIU had already begun organizing some of these workers even before Sweeney became head, first of 32BJ and then the SEIU itself in 1980. And of course, the union needed a different sort of organizer to do the work. I can still remember the shock with which I greeted the news, in the early 1970s, that a young woman in my Berkeley socialist group was not only on the payroll of an oddly named trade union — SEIU — but had actually been given an airplane ticket to fly to Los Angeles to organize hospital staff.

Sweeney was soft-spoken and thoughtful, but also an effective and energetic administrator. Under his leadership SEIU had nearly doubled its membership by the early 1990s.

He poured upwards of 30 percent of the union budget into organizing, at a time when other unions, shell-shocked by the Reaganite ascendency, were hardly trying. Some of this growth was the result of mergers with existing organizations, but a lot of it arose out of a newfound militancy.

With Stephen Lerner and other talented, radical organizers, Sweeney was the architect of the “Justice for Janitors” campaign, which used an imaginative range of militant and disruptive tactics to put pressure on those at the top of the service industry supply chain – the skyscraper owners, hotel holding companies, and government officials — who held the purse and power to make union recognition actually pay off. Most famously, “J for J” blocked Century Boulevard in LA, where the police bloodied maids and janitors, and the Roosevelt Bridge connecting Washington with Northern Virginia.

Police strike a worker during a Justice for Janitors rally in Los Angeles in 1990.

Lane Kirkland’s leadership of the AFL-CIO had long been uninspired. A Cold Warrior, Kirkland invested much of his own energy and commitment in battling Communists in Central America and sustaining Poland’s Solidarity trade union. President Bill Clinton offered Kirkland an ambassadorship in Eastern Europe, but he rejected it with disdain.

So Kirkland took the blame for the series of stunning defeats confronting organized labor during the first two years of the Clinton administration. The Congress had passed NAFTA over labor’s intense opposition, defeated Clinton’s health care plan, and failed to pass legislation that would have prevented companies from hiring permanent replacement workers during strikes. Topping it all off, Republicans had won control of the House of Representatives in 1994, making Newt Gingrich the first GOP speaker since 1955.

Unions representing a majority of the AFL-CIO membership were ready to throw Kirkland out. Decisive in the eventual victory of Sweeney’s “New Voice” slate was the transformation of the Teamsters, where in 1991 reformer Ron Carey had ousted a corrupt and conservative old guard. That rank-and-file revolt would garner the Kirkland opposition a million additional votes at the AFL-CIO convention in October 1995, enough to ensure a comfortable victory.

Among the insurgents, John Sweeney had easily emerged as a natural leader. His mild-mannered demeanor reassured, while his innovative success leading SEIU promised that the AFL-CIO would adopt a more aggressive political and organizing posture. In Sweeney’s campaign for the federation presidency, his running mate for the newly created post of executive vice-president was Linda Chavez-Thompson, a Texas sharecropper’s daughter. She would be the first minority group member ever elected to the AFL-CIO’s top leadership. Richard Trumka, who had led the United Mine Workers through a 1930s-style confrontation with Pittston Coal in 1989 and 1990, was slated as the new secretary-treasurer.

By time the AFL-CIO October 1995 convention arrived Kirkland had resigned — he could see the writing on the wall — and Tom Donahue, long a Kirkland loyalist as AFL-CIO secretary treasurer, stepped into his shoes as the establishment candidate. Donahue was not a Meany or a Kirkland. A friend and mentor to Sweeney, the reformers had once considered him as a progressive Kirkland replacement.

However, by the time they debated each other in October, Donahue was saddled with upholding the status quo. He attacked Sweeney for the SEIU’s disruptive organizing tactics, for failing to “build bridges” toward its opponents, and for leading the labor movement down a path which “will marginalize us and consign us to the fringes of society for generations to come.”  To this Sweeney famously replied, “I believe in building bridges. When the shelling stops, let’s put up steel and pour concrete. But I also believe in blocking bridges when communities and corporations don’t listen. Next time I’m in jail, Tom, come visit me.”

As president of the AFL-CIO, Sweeney opened the doors to progressive unions who had long been on the outs at the federation and to union activists who had been criticizing the AFL-CIO for years. Sweeney hired Barbara Shailor to revamp the AFL-CIO’s foreign-policy operation, renaming it the “Solidarity Center” and moving it out of the ideological and operative orbit that had once linked the federation’s engagement with overseas unions to the CIA and U.S. foreign policy more generally.

He made Bill Fletcher, a radical black intellectual, head of the AFL-CIO’s Education Department, and put Richard Bensinger in charge of a greatly enlarged Organizing Institute, which trained a new generation of organizers, many right out of college. He beefed up AFL-CIO political operations under Steve Rosenthal, who soon linked union electoral campaigns to other progressive interests and causes that labor had too often shunned. And Sweeney expanded the AFL-CIO Executive Council by twenty seats to bring more women and people of color into leadership positions.

John Sweeney during his time as president of SEIU Local 32B-32J. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the late 1990s Sweeney’s AFL-CIO proved energetic and engaged. The federation poured money and organizers into an effort to revitalize the United Farm Workers and unionize thousands of strawberry workers in California. When the Teamsters struck United Parcel Service in 1997, the largest work stoppage in decades, Sweeney backstopped his high-profile support with a pledge that the AFL-CIO would provide as much money as necessary to ensure a working-class victory. SEIU organized nearly a hundred thousand home health care workers in California.

And Sweeney was on the ground in Seattle during the demonstrations that disrupted the meeting of the World Trade Organization there. He was furious with Bill Clinton, whose trade negotiators had reached an agreement to admit China to the WTO with no regard for labor standards. To a large rally of unionists and environmentalists, Sweeney said: “It is disgustingly hypocritical of the Clinton administration to pledge to put a human face on the global economy while prostrating itself in pursuit of a trade deal with a rogue nation.”

Perhaps as important as any of this, the AFL-CIO heeded the voices of a younger generation of immigrant activists, in California and elsewhere, to reverse the labor federation’s century-old opposition to immigration and become a staunch supporter of legalizing undocumented workers. The federation’s executive council called for a repeal of employer sanctions (which it had supported in 1986), legalization of most of the unauthorized foreigners already in the US, and new criminal penalties on employers who use labor and immigration laws to exploit vulnerable workers.

The Sweeney victory at the AFL-CIO had a galvanizing impact on a large slice of the US left. While his insurgency was not a rank-and-file revolt, it did sweep away barriers, both cultural and political, that had divided US labor from those intellectuals, academics, and left-wing activists who in Europe and Latin America had long been the natural allies and collaborators of the labor movement.

With Steve Fraser, an author and editor whose biography of Sidney Hillman had just appeared, I collected signatures on a letter to the New York Review of Books hailing the New Voice victory. It was signed by a bevy of writers and academics, New Left and of an older liberalism, who had been waiting, seemingly for decades, for just such an occasion.

When we then organized a Columbia University “Teach-in with the Labor Movement,” Betty Friedan, Richard Rorty, and Cornel West canceled previous engagements to join John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and scores of other unionists, activists, and academics at an event that seemed to many a generational, cultural, and ideological reunion. Ghostwritten by former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet, Sweeney published in 1996 America Needs a Raise: Fighting for Economic Security and Social Justice.

But none of this stanched the organizational decline of the labor movement. As South China became the manufacturing workshop of the world, the old industrial unions bled jobs in the Rust Belt; meanwhile, AFL-CIO affiliates failed to make the organizational breakthroughs the Sweeney team forecast when they came to power. The UFW effort to organize strawberry workers did not succeed; the United Food and Commercial Workers could not make any headway at Wal-Mart; the UAW failed to organize the Japanese and Korean transplants springing up in the South; and Silicon Valley remained largely off limits.

In truth, the AFL-CIO itself plays a small role in union organizing efforts. Sweeney’s tentative effort to change that met considerable pushback, especially after Richard Bensinger tried to persuade member unions to devote more dues money to organizing.

Meanwhile, Sweeney could do nothing to improve labor law. Under George W. Bush, the AFL-CIO fought a series of defensive battles. When Barack Obama occupied the White House, the Employee Free Choice Act garnered neither enough votes in the Senate nor the political commitment from the president to stand any chance of passage, the fate that greeted every union effort to make organizing easier when a Democratic president and Congress came to power. Employers took note, making an intransigent hostility to unionization of their employees standard operating procedure.

It might well be a tribute to the expectations raised by Sweeney and his allies that in 2005 he faced his own revolt from within the AFL-CIO. When Sweeney refused to step down, several unions, most led by a younger generation, broke away to form a rival federation called Change to Win. This was no popular revolt, but rather a desperate organizational gambit that would combine a renewed organizing effort with clever public relations to give the appearance — and maybe the reality — of energy and momentum. Among the ringleaders were Andy Stern, who succeeded Sweeney as SEIU president; Bruce Raynor of UNITE, the clothing and textile union; and James Hoffa of the Teamsters, who just wanted to save money on per-capita payments to the AFL-CIO.

Change to Win was not the second coming of the CIO, the militant trade union group that transformed industrial America in the 1930s. The same political and legal constraints, the same business hostility, and the same inequitable globalization that had dashed Sweeney’s ambitions soon stymied CtW as well. But the self-inflicted damage could not be easily repaired, with the AFL-CIO losing a quarter of its membership and 10 percent of its income. Most of the Change to Win unions eventually rejoined the AFL-CIO, although the Teamsters and SEIU remain outside.

John Sweeney retired in 2009 and was succeeded by Richard Trumka. It is likely that the next president of the AFL-CIO will be a woman, with the top two candidates being Elizabeth Schuler, the current secretary-treasurer, and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

In his own obituary of John Sweeney, the American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson summed up his legacy as well as anyone. Sweeney failed to rebuild the house of labor in his own time,

But what Sweeney did accomplish was to bring his embattled movement into alignment with the rest of progressive America, so that if the nation does manage to turn the corner toward a more equitable version of itself, the workers’ cause will not be left behind other progressive advances, as it has been since the 1970s. That there’s this element of contingency to his legacy doesn’t diminish the work that he did. If we are to win a brighter future, John Sweeney will have helped get us there.