The AFL-CIO Executive Council mourns the passing of John Sweeney, president emeritus of the AFL-CIO.
Sweeney was guided into unionism by his Catholic faith, and not a day passed by when he didn’t put the needs of working people first.
Sweeney was one of four children born to Irish immigrants in a working-class Bronx neighborhood shortly after the Great Depression. His parents, James and Agnes Sweeney, worked as a bus driver and a domestic worker, respectively.
Sweeney often spoke about his father’s loyalty to his union, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), with a sense of what it did for his family. Solid meals. A week of vacation. And political rallies with his father.
While working on a political campaign, Sweeney met his wife, Maureen Power. He ran for and was elected Democratic district leader and volunteered for John Kennedy’s presidential campaign. But the labor movement is where it all came together for him.
As a young man, Sweeney held jobs as a grave-digger and building porter while studying economics at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, where he joined a union for the first time.
Sweeney was exposed to Catholic social teaching from an early age, including the Xavier Labor School. He worked to forge alliances between Catholic leaders and the labor movement.
Sweeney took a position as a researcher with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, a predecessor to UNITE HERE. He connected with the Building Service Employees International Union, known today as the Service Employees International Union or SEIU.
Sweeney worked his way up the ranks of Local 32B, winning election as president in 1976. He merged 32B, the union for male janitors, with 32J, the union for female janitors, in 1977, forming the powerful Local 32BJ—which now represents hundreds of thousands of building service workers throughout the East Coast. The men were paid more; Sweeney’s leadership won both the women and men a unified contract. As president of 32BJ, Sweeney led successful citywide strikes, winning better wages, benefits and other contract improvements. This led to his election as SEIU international president in 1980.
Sweeney transformed SEIU—dedicating one-third of the union’s budget to new worker organizing and doubling its membership over the next decade. He focused on wins for low-wage workers and championed immigrant rights. He spearheaded the Justice for Janitors campaign of mass civil disobedience in Los Angeles that brought dignity and voice to caretakers and cleaners across the United States and Canada, which set the tone for worker organizing and economic justice for decades to come. He also led high-profile mergers with 1199 and other public employee unions.
In 1995, Sweeney led an insurgent campaign to capture the presidency of the AFL-CIO. Running on a New Voice ticket with United Mine Workers of America President Richard Trumka, who leads the AFL-CIO today, and AFSCME International Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson, in the newly created position of executive vice president, paving the way for the first person of color in the federation’s highest ranks, Sweeney was elected on a promise of bold change and a recommitment to worker organizing.
As president, Sweeney founded the Union Summer campaign to recruit young people to become organizers. He pushed the labor movement to become more diverse and take on civil rights issues, racial justice and gender equality. He deliberately recruited and supported strong women as senior staff members. And it was under his leadership that America’s unions began to embrace immigrant workers as part of the broader union family, particularly those who had not yet achieved legal status. At Sweeney’s insistence the AFL-CIO, for the first time, in 2000, supported a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.
The New Voice team created a new kind of internationalism for the labor movement, focused on challenging corporate-driven globalization. After leading historic protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, Sweeney transformed the federation’s commitment to promoting a global agenda rooted in worker rights, environmental protection and pro-worker economic policies. He translated protests in the streets to campaigns with multinational corporations that supported worker organizing. In 1997, Sweeney created the Solidarity Center, allied with the AFL-CIO, to focus on supporting worker organizing and strengthening trade union capacity in more than 30 countries.
Sweeney built the AFL-CIO into a political powerhouse, electing pro-worker champions and fighting for union-friendly policies at all levels of government.
Sweeney inspired hard work and loyalty by working harder and longer than anybody and never giving up on people or goals. He kept the optimism and hope of a child of immigrants from the Bronx, and his faith and his belief in this country. Sweeney had a reputation for helping countless people. He was as comfortable with a janitor or nursing home worker as he was with a pope or president. It was a consistent and remarkable display of humility for someone given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Barack Obama in 2011, and a true icon whom former President Bill Clinton called “a force for inclusion and activism.”
John Sweeney retired from the AFL-CIO in 2009 after nearly 60 years in the labor movement.
All working people owe him a debt of gratitude for a lifetime of service to America’s labor movement.