AFL-CIO President Emeritus John Sweeney Dies at 86

John Sweeney

AFL-CIO President Emeritus John Sweeney died Monday at the age of 86. Sweeney (SEIU) served as president of the AFL-CIO from 19952009, and his importance to America's working people can't be overstated. Here is what people across the labor movement and beyond are saying about Sweeney.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (UMWA):

John Sweeney was a legend, plain and simple. He was guided into unionism by his Catholic faith, and not a single day passed by when he didn’t put the needs of working people first. John viewed his leadership as a spiritual calling, a divine act of solidarity in a world plagued by distance and division. The son of Irish immigrants, he used work as a way to directly apply his values, consistently exhibiting grit over flash and pursuing progress instead of posturing. He built SEIU into a powerhouse, doubling its membership, earning respect across the labor movement and in the halls of power. Throughout his storied life, John used the lessons he learned as a ground-level union leader to uphold dignity for all working people and expand human rights worldwide. I was proud to join his insurgent ticket in 1995, which recommitted the AFL-CIO to worker organizing and collective power. As president, John was a great leader and 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. Former President Bill Clinton called John “a force for inclusion and activism.” I was blessed to call him a brother, a mentor and a friend. May God bless John’s memory, his family and the labor movement to which he devoted his life.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler (IBEW):

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten:

Boilermakers (IBB):

Electrical Workers (IBEW) International President Lonnie Stephenson:

John Sweeney was a true giant of the American labor movement. He devoted his life to fighting for the dignity and respect of all working people. From deploying innovative tactics to organize janitors to leading the AFL-CIO to meet the challenges of the 21st century, he leaves behind an unmatched legacy of worker justice. Brother Sweeney joins other legendary labor leaders like Samuel Gompers, John Lewis and A. Philip Randolph in the pantheon of heroes of the American labor movement. My thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family.

International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) President Paul Shearon:

“President Sweeney will forever be remembered as one of America’s greatest champions for working families. Before being elected president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, he was the leader of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) since 1980, a union that grew to one of the biggest in the nation under his leadership. As AFL-CIO president, Brother Sweeney was a trailblazer in the history of the labor movement, demanding that the highest levels of the American labor movement should no longer be a white male-only club. He transformed and reformed our labor movement so that trade unionists of all racial backgrounds—people of color, women, and those in the LGBTQ communities—became leaders in our movement.” “We at IFPTE will always remember and pay gratitude to President Sweeney, as he, along with then Secretary-Treasurer Trumka, provided the solidarity and strength we needed during SPEEA/IFPTE Local 2001’s successful strike against The Boeing Company in 2000. He also personally ensured that our union would gain a seat on the powerful AFL-CIO Executive Council at the 2005 convention, a seat that IFPTE had never held before. And we were honored to have President Sweeney as our keynote speaker at IFPTE’s 2006 convention in Toronto.” “President Sweeney learned unionism at a very young age, as his father was a union-represented bus driver in New York, and his mother was a domestic worker. He told the New York Times in 2009 that the difference between his mother not having a union versus his father ‘taught me from a young age the difference between workers who are organized and workers who were by themselves.’” “The IFPTE family offers our condolences to President Sweeney’s family and honor his tremendous contributions to our labor movement.”

Machinists (IAM):

United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts:

I met John Sweeney when John, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez Thompson were running for the leadership of the AFL-CIO. It was unheard of to have a contested election, but it happened at the 1995 AFL-CIO convention in New York. It may have been the most exciting convention since 1935 when John L. Lewis left to start the CIO. John, Rich and Linda won that election and soon ignited the passions of workers everywhere. John was the most humble labor leader I ever met. He was always kind not just to me but to everyone he encountered. I had the honor of helping elect him and serving on the Executive Council when he was president. I have lost a great friend, but Heaven has gained a great leader. I am quite certain that Dr. King, A. Philip Randolph, Mother Jones and many others greeted him as he came through the pearly gates.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi:

John Sweeney was a giant presence in the House of Labor, and his influence was felt throughout the labor movement. John forever holds a special place in NATCA’s history because it is his signature, as the President of the AFL-CIO in 1998, that is on our charter from the AFL-CIO accepting us as a direct affiliate. John’s strengths were in the area of worker collective power, and the example he set was extraordinary. We extend our sympathies to his family and friends. We join all of our fellow AFL-CIO affiliates in honoring John’s memory with our own examples of union pride and solidarity.

Plasterers and Cement Masons General President Daniel E. Stepano:

On behalf of the OPCMIA’s 56,000 proud members, I want to express my deep condolences to the family and friends of the legendary John Sweeney, a great leader of the greatest movement of our times. As President of the AFL-CIO, brother Sweeney revitalized the labor movement, spearheading aggressive organizing strategies, expanding and diversifying union leadership and membership and launching a new wave of activism for social and economic justice. Before then, as president of the Service Employees International Union, he doubled his union’s membership and turned it into a powerhouse. Brother Sweeney was a good man and a great leader. He put the interests of America’s working families first in everything he did. He was passionate about the pursuit of justice, about workers’ and civil rights, and about upholding the dignity of all working people. And he was a relentless force for solidarity. While grounded in the great traditions of the labor movement, Brother Sweeney was also a bold innovator, embracing new tactics and strategies, and broadening the appeal of unions to younger generations, women, people of color, immigrants, and all those left behind by our economy and society. We will miss Brother Sweeney, but his legacy lives on. And we pledge to do everything to continue to bring his life’s work of empowerment to fruition.

SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris:


For over half a century, the labor movement was John Sweeney’s passion. In 1956, the son of two Irish immigrants took a pay cut to become a researcher with the International Ladies Garment Workers union. That was Brother Sweeney — whether on the picket lines or in the halls of Congress, he would throw his energy and activism into the world of workers who often faced the most grueling conditions on the job. That led John Sweeney to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in the early 1960s—a union that would be his labor home for over four decades, which grew under his eventual leadership as president, to well over one million workers. But, John Sweeney also always kept his eyes on the bigger prize: a powerful, nationwide labor movement that would support workers in every corner of the economy and help them achieve dignity, respect and power at work. When he decided to leave his beloved SEIU in 1995 to take the helm of the AFL-CIO as the Federation’s president, he sought to reinvigorate an organizing culture throughout labor because he knew that to live the labor credo “an injury to one is an injury to all”—the basis for SAG-AFTRA's Global Rule One — millions of workers needed to join the labor movement and raise their voices to spread fairness and justice across the land. Today, workers in every industry, including the media and entertainment industry, are better off because of the vision and service of John Sweeney.

United Autoworkers (UAW) President Rory L. Gamble:

History will remember AFL-CIO President John Sweeney for his soft-spoken heartfelt leadership that bridged the labor movement in the United States during a crucial time in American history. President Sweeney was dealt a tough hand post-NAFTA and sought to modernize organizing, advocacy and mobilization and focus on diversity and inclusion of the modern labor movement. It is these imprints that UAW members and all of labor benefit from today. The UAW sends condolences to brother Sweeney’s family and a heartfelt thanks for the imprint he has made in our worksites and our homes.

AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust:

The AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust is greatly saddened by the passing of our long-time friend and Board of Trustees Chair Emeritus, John Sweeney. John was truly a giant of the labor movement and the HIT is sustained and will continue to be inspired by his example. A trustee since the HIT’s inception in 1984 and Board Chair for many years, John gave invaluable counsel in service to our mission. His guidance in ensuring that we fulfilled labor’s values in investments to build our participants’ financial security and create family-supporting union jobs, affordable and workforce housing and vibrant communities across the U.S. is a legacy that will endure. We wish comfort for his family and every blessing that comes from lifelong dedication to the labor movement and to social justice.

AFL-CIO Investment Trust Corporation:

The AFL-CIO Investment Trust Corporation (ITC) joins the entire labor movement in mourning the passing of AFL-CIO President Emeritus John J. Sweeney. President Sweeney worked tirelessly throughout his life as an advocate for working families. As a champion of social justice, President Sweeney understood the power of investment vehicles such as the AFL-CIO Building Investment Trust (BIT) in amplifying workers’ voices. President Sweeney never missed an opportunity to advocate for how labor’s investments could be effectively aligned with its values. His legacy lives on today as the power and reach of AFL-CIO investment vehicles continue to expand the impact of our capital. President Sweeney will be dearly missed but never forgotten. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends as they honor his life and memory.

Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) President Elise Bryant:

All of us at the CLUW join with the AFL-CIO and the late President John Sweeney’s family in mourning the loss of a great labor leader. I remember when Mr. Sweeney led the Service Employees International Union in an organizing campaign that trained thousands of member organizers who spread out across the country to bring “Justice for Janitors”. We will miss Brother Sweeney, but we can and will honor the legacy of grassroots organizing he leaves behind. John Sweeney, Rest In Peace and Power!

Jobs With Justice:

National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) Co-Executive Director Pablo Alvarado:

NDLON mourns the loss of former AFL-CIO President, John Sweeney. I had the fortune to connect with him on a human level. He led from the heart as much as the brain-never from the ego. In 2006 we signed the first ever agreement between the AFL & our network of worker centers.

North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) President Sean McGarvey:

John Sweeney’s passing is not just a loss for the labor movement; our entire country lost a decent, kind man who never wavered on his convictions in life. This working-class son of immigrants used lessons taught at home and in his church to guide him to pursue social justice for all, and he had a burning desire to lift up workers in this country and around the world. His cheerful tenacity confounded his critics and inspired millions. While many beneficiaries of his success may not know his name, they and their families enjoy the fruits of his lifetime labor and legacy. As President of the AFL-CIO, John always found time to greet you, learn your story, impart wisdom and offer a number to reach him in case you ever needed help. It is a fitting tribute that he was recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his patriotism and dogged pursuit of justice for all. We in the building trades will always remember his leadership, his thoughtful attention to our members’ needs and his genuine efforts to help. It is often said when one passes that there will never be another like him or her. In John’s case, it is absolutely true. As we mourn his passing, we’re re-energized by his fighting spirit for anyone anywhere that works for a living. Our heartfelt condolences to his beautiful wife Maureen, their children Patricia and John, and the love of his life—his granddaughter Kennedy. Rest in peace, John Sweeney—your work here among us mortals was very well done.

Pride at Work founder and president emeritus, Nancy Wohlforth:

I know I speak for all of Pride at Work when I say we are truly saddened to learn of the death of John Sweeney. I first met John in the late 1970s when LGBTQ workers not only faced discrimination from employers but also from the very group that claimed as its motto “An injury to one is an injury to all.” A group of LGBTQ workers from around the country came together at an SEIU reception in Washington, DC in the mid-80s to discuss our strategy to win full inclusion in the labor movement. Sweeney, then President of SEIU, announced his full support of the fight of LGBTQ workers for equal rights and protections. At that time there was not much backing from national organizations fighting for our rights, and Sweeney was among the first to take a stand in our support. Throughout the following decade, LGBTQ workers continued to form groups around the country, but we still were not recognized or materially supported by the national AFL-CIO. The lack of solidarity stood out, since other groups who had joined together for mutual aid and support, now called constituency groups, were recognized and given financial support from the national labor movement. It wasn’t until 1997, two years after Sweeney ran and won the leadership of the AFL-CIO, that Pride at Work was recognized as the official constituency group for LGBTQ workers. Sweeney assigned Linda Chavez Thompson, the first woman of color to be an officer of the national labor federation, to advocate for recognition and financial support of queer workers’ organizing efforts. At the same time, Pride at Work broadened the scope of its efforts by advocating for marriage equality. Sweeney continued to speak out for the rights of LGBTQ workers to receive the same benefits that straight workers enjoyed. In closing let me say that while I’m sure Pride at Work would have existed without the support of John Sweeney, I’m sure it would have taken many more years. We stand on his shoulders, and those of all the pioneer trade unionists who stood up for justice for all.

UNI Global Union:

The global trade union movement lost a giant with the passing of AFL-CIO President Emeritus John Sweeney this week. President Sweeney was a leader of the union now known as 32BJ SEIU, SEIU’s largest union of cleaners and security guards, for twenty years before becoming the SEIU President in 1980. Under his leadership, the union nearly doubled its membership. He built a renowned organizing program and elevated young organizers, women and people of colour into positions of responsibility within the union. In 1995, he was elected to lead the AFL-CIO on a platform marked by a recommitment to organizing, an expansion of workers’ political strength, a growth in inclusion and union democracy. John Sweeney’s commitment to the advancement of worker power extended well beyond the U.S. border. He was a fierce globalist and an important leader in FIET, one of UNI’s founding organizations. His drive to raise standards for the cleaners and janitors of the world led to the creation of UNI Property Services. Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of UNI Global Union, said, “We are deeply saddened by President Sweeney’s passing. We have all been touched by his legacy. As a trade unionist from the United States, I witnessed first hand his bold and forward thinking—he modelled humanity coupled with toughness and set an example for all of us. And he had a profound appreciation for international work, leaving his mark on UNI and building the pillar on which UNI Property Services stands today. Our thoughts are with his family and the many who called him a mentor and friend.

Working America:

John Sweeney was a steward of change throughout his life in the labor movement, including creating Working America. In 2003, working families were losing power when John Sweeney went to the AFL-CIO leadership with a new idea: Create a community-based labor organization that anyone could join as an associate member, restore belief in collective power, win elections and create a path for new union organizing. Though it was a big departure for the labor movement at the time, Working America was a huge success, organizing 1 million members at their doorsteps in the first year and continuing to thrive 18 years later. “John Sweeney believed in organizing the unorganized. He understood that in order to build power, the labor movement needed to expand its reach beyond its ranks and give working people who didn’t have the benefit of a union on the job an on-ramp to progressive collective action,” said Working America Founding Director Karen Nussbaum. “Working America is just one of his many living legacies.”

California Labor Federation:

New Jersey State AFL-CIO:

New Jersey has lost a loyal friend and a well-respected visionary leader with the passing of John J. Sweeney, national AFL-CIO President Emeritus. President Sweeney died on February 1, 2021. He was 86. He served as national president of the AFL-CIO from 1995 until 2009, revitalizing the labor federation’s commitment to organizing, collective bargaining, political advocacy, diversity and equality, and social justice. “I don’t have the words to express how great a friend to us John was,” New Jersey State AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech said. “He always supported our programs in New Jersey, especially our Labor Candidates Program. He loved spending time with our rank-and-file brothers and sisters on his many trips here.” “He was such an inspiration,” New Jersey State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Laurel Brennan said. “He was a visionary leader, ahead of his time when it came to inclusion. And he was a humble man who was a champion for working families.” “John Sweeney was a true trade unionist who created a real unity in our Labor Movement,” President Wowkanech said. “We will miss him greatly, and we offer our deepest condolences to his wife, Maureen, and his children and granddaughter.”

New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento (CWA):

John Sweeney was one of the true giants of the labor movement. At one point in his decades-long career as a union activist and labor leader, he served proudly on the board of the New York State AFL-CIO where we felt his visionary leadership and devotion to our movement firsthand. Born in the Bronx in 1934, John found a calling to improve the lives of working people and passionately fought to organize workers rising to president of the National AFL-CIO until his retirement in 2009. Our hearts are with John’s family during this most difficult time.

Pennsylvania AFL-CIO:

Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council:

New York City Central Labor Council President Vincent Alvarez (IBEW):

All of New York City labor mourns the loss of former AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. President Sweeney was a son of New York City, born and raised in the Bronx. He rose up through our city’s labor movement by fighting every day for working people and communities, eventually leading SEIU nationally before taking on the reins of the AFL-CIO in 1995. President Sweeney was not only a giant of the labor movement, he was a person of enormous integrity, class, compassion and grace. He was one of our own, and his contributions to the lives of New York City’s and our nation’s workers will never be forgotten. We send our deepest condolences to his family and loved ones.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) International President Mary Kay Henry:

John Sweeney believed in a labor movement that included everyone. He put action behind those beliefs, making it his life’s mission to build a more inclusive union. His commitment to organizing helped pave the way to building SEIU into the two million-strong union of service and care workers that it is today. John’s leadership made a lasting impact on all working people through his generosity and willingness to take risks. Without John’s risk-taking, I might not be lucky enough to be part of the SEIU family today. When he hired me in 1980 to organize healthcare workers, that was not a job women did. And when I took risks and stood with allies for pay equity, he had my back, as he continued to do for the rest of his career, including when he nominated me to my first term on SEIU’s International Executive Board. John was equal parts generosity and fearlessness, and the labor movement is better for it. My thoughts are with his family in this difficult time. Rest in power, John.

President Joe Biden:

I had the honor and privilege of working closely with John Sweeney during his leadership of the AFL-CIO. Time and again over the many years of our friendship, I saw how lifting up the rights, voices, and dignity of working Americans was more than a job to him. It was a sacred mission. It was a calling. The son of a maid and a bus driver from Ireland, John grew up attending union meetings alongside his father. By the time he punched his own union card, America’s faith in unions was too often undermined. But John’s own faith in God sustained him with a value set and the conviction—to never lose sight of the truth that the middle class built America, and that unions built the middle class. The work he led, from the factory floors of the garment workers early in his career to the highest corridors of power as a national labor leader, embodied the vital role that unions play in delivering greater wages and benefits for working people—union and nonunion alike. With every legislative push and tough labor negotiation, he understood the possibilities of our nation when everyday Americans who do extraordinary things are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. Jill and I count ourselves among the millions of Americans who will always be grateful for the progress John won, the example he set, and the legacy he has left to our nation. Our prayers are with John’s wife, Maureen, with their children, Trish and John Jr., and with his granddaughter, Kennedy. May God bless John Sweeney, a giant of the American labor movement, and a good man.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer:

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (Md.):

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. House of Representatives:

Today, American workers lost a giant of the labor movement, whose extraordinary life and leadership made a profound difference for our Country and Democracy: John Sweeney. Both personally and officially, I am deeply saddened by his passing. Driven by his Catholic faith and his values as the son of Irish immigrants, John dedicated his life to honoring the dignity and contributions of America’s workers. John knew that workers are the backbone of our nation’s economy and the foundation of our strength, and every day, upheld that commitment in both word and deed. Over his storied career, he transformed the labor movement, making it more inclusive, progressive and prepared for the future and ensuring that workers’ voices were always heard in the halls of power. John Sweeney was a man beloved by all who knew him for his great generosity, graciousness and warmth. His friendship will be dearly missed by countless Americans. May it be a comfort to his wife Maureen, their children John and Patricia, granddaughter Kennedy and the entire Sweeney family that so many mourn their loss and are praying for them at this sad time.

Rep. Andy Levin (Mich.):

I first met John Sweeney when I was 22 and his staff offered me a job helping nursing home workers organize with SEIU in my home state of Michigan. The union was hiring a novice, front-line organizer, but I was ushered into the office of the president of the national union to meet the man himself. He was modest and unassuming that day, and he never changed, even as he doubled the size of SEIU, even as he became the consensus choice to lead the only insurgent takeover of the AFL-CIO in its history, even as he helped transform its policies to focus on organizing, support immigrant workers and much more. John Sweeney never saw himself as being above any of the workers he came to represent, and he fought for them with unquestioned integrity and an openness to innovation and change possible only with true humility. I ended up spending five years organizing with SEIU, then returning years later to help his campaign to take over the AFL-CIO, and then working 11 years under his leadership there. Throughout that time, I trusted President Sweeney completely – he gave me big assignments and the leeway to make them my own. He drew the best out of me by letting me know he had faith in me. He tolerated mistakes, but not lapsed ethics. One story that captures John well is that when I was creating Union Summer, a program to put 1,000 young people onto the front lines of union organizing and bargaining campaigns in the summer of 1996, shortly after he became AFL-CIO president, he insisted on making the ‘Summeristas’ as we called them employees of the AFL-CIO, even though they were essentially doing a three-week summer camp. He knew it would be much more expensive and a lot more work, but he insisted on taking full responsibility for every one of them. John put the interest of other people and the labor movement above his own, every time. I loved John Sweeney in an uncomplicated way that feels hard to describe and that I hope remains possible in our troubled world. He was an honest leader, a great soul, doing his best to keep faith with his God and lift up his fellow human beings. Godspeed, John Sweeney.

Rep. Donald Norcross (N.J.):

Rep. Dina Titus (Nev.):

Rep. Susan Wild (Pa.):

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich: