John Sweeney: A Remembrance

John Sweeney, president of SEIU (1980 – 1995) and later president of the AFL-CIO (1995 – 2009), was a pivotal figure in the labor movement. His passing in February provides an occasion to look back on the role he played — and an opportunity to better understand the complex path of labor movement progress in our recent past. The appreciation of Sweeney below, written by long-term DSA member and union activist Paul Garver, provides insight into his leadership that has relevance for understanding labor activism in our present.  

Below Garver’s article we include a link to the WPFW broadcast: “Remembering John Sweeney (1934 – 2021).” In the broadcast, Chris Garlock (coordinator of Union Cities Program for the Metro Washington Labor Council) and Ed Smith (executive director of the DC Nurses Association) interview Steven Lerner, who helped create the Justice for Janitors organizing program; Marilyn Sneiderman, former director of the AFL-CIO’s Department of Field Mobilization; Harold Meyerson, editor at large of The American Prospect (and long-time DSA member); and Harold McCartin, labor historian at Georgetown University.

When I was hired in 1974 by the SEIU local in Pittsburgh as a health care sector organizer, John Sweeney was president of Building Service Local 32B-32J in New York. He stood out among other SEIU local leaders in this sector by his personal integrity. After he was elected SEIU national president in 1980, he quickly moved to step up SEIU’s worker organizing program, notably the innovative and combative Justice for Janitors campaign. SEIU's membership nearly doubled during his 15-year tenure, though in part by accreting other unions.

My own relationship to SEIU President John Sweeney concerned labor's international policy. I recall that in 1984, after another local SEIU leader and I returned from a study visit to Nicaragua, he invited us to meet with him personally to give him a briefing. Again in 1986 he listened to my report back from a labor conference in San Salvador hosted by the Jesuit University; again he listened attentively. I recall his comment that he understood the passionate views of some SEIU staff and leaders against US policy towards Central America, but that for the vast majority of SEIU members it was not a priority issue.

President Sweeney played a quiet, behind-the-scenes role in helping orchestrate the resolution of the 1988 SEIU International Convention in Toronto to significantly change SEIU's position on international labor policy. He set up a special International Resolutions committee to organize what seemed destined to be a contentious debate on the floor of the convention. The committee included both critics and defenders of the current policy, plus several leaders of major local unions who had not declared a position. From my position on that committee, I reported back several times to a "Left Caucus" — itself a diverse mélange of different views — and between lengthy official sessions negotiated with Sweeney's trusted advisor, Bob Welch. I subsequently understood Welch’s role to have been to ensure that nothing the convention did would make Sweeney's future campaign for AFL-CIO president impossible. Amazingly, after three days of haggling, we came up with an approach that won the unanimous support of the Left Caucus and of President Sweeney's administrative team. I was asked by both the Left Caucus and Sweeney to present the International Committee's consensus report to the convention, a challenge which I accepted on the condition that there would be a lineup of equal numbers of seconders from the Left Caucus and from the administrative team. The consensus resolution was firmly grounded in the underlying principle that genuine labor solidarity is based on the mutual interest of the world's working class and not on the political disputes of governments.

When John Sweeney was elected president of the AFL-CIO in 1995 — defeating Tom Donahue, who had been secretary-treasurer in Lane Kirkland's pro-Cold War administration — he systematically and patiently moved to place that underlying principle at the core of the current AFL-CIO Solidarity Center's work. AIFLD, AAFLI and the other regional institutes that had promoted anti-communist and pro-Cold War practices and policies were abolished and their staff members retired or reassigned.

I was fortunate enough, a few years ago, to have the opportunity to participate in several seminars at the JFK School of Government over which John Sweeney presided as a fellow. The retired John Sweeney was as modest and unassuming as he had been as a president of Local 32B-J, then as SEIU president and later as AFL-CIO president. To my knowledge, he was a DSA member at some time, but never identified himself as a democratic socialist. Democratic and dedicated to working-class unionism to the core, he was, above all, a mensch.

Paul Garver has been a member of DSA since its origin and served several times on the National Political Committee. He worked as an organizer and staff director for an SEIU local in Pittsburgh, and from1990 to 2006 worked as a global organizer for the International Union of Food and Allied Workers.  

WPFW broadcast: "Remembering John Sweeney (1934 – 2021)"

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