Executive Council Statement

On the Passing of Tom Donahue

The AFL-CIO Executive Council mourns the passing of Tom Donahue, president emeritus of the AFL-CIO.

Donahue’s career in the labor movement spanned six decades, starting as a part-time organizer with the Retail Clerks International Union in New York City and rising to secretary-treasurer and president of the AFL-CIO.

Throughout his legendary career, Donahue never forgot his Bronx roots. He grew up in an Irish Catholic family in the Bronx, New York, the son of Thomas R. and Mary E. Donahue. His father was a union deckhand with the Staten Island Ferry, giving him an early education in the movement that would shape his life.

He joined the staff of the Building Service Employees International Union in 1960, serving as executive assistant until 1967, when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Donahue as assistant secretary of labor for labor-management relations. In 1969, Donahue returned to his post at the renamed Service Employees International Union (SEIU). He was elected first vice president of SEIU in 1971.

In 1973, AFL-CIO President George Meany tapped Donahue to be his executive assistant and, after Meany’s retirement in 1979, he was elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO under Lane Kirkland, a position he held for 16 years.

In 1995, after Kirkland retired as president of the AFL-CIO, the Executive Council selected Donahue to serve out the remaining months of Kirkland’s term.

A tireless champion of organizing, Donahue helped create the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute, which opened doors for a new generation of organizers. He believed deeply in the collective power workers wield when we have a union on the job.

One of his most often quoted remarks was, “The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor.”

Throughout his distinguished career as an organizer and labor leader, Donahue pushed the labor movement to embrace innovation and change to keep propelling workers forward. 

Donahue’s influence extended well beyond our nation’s borders. He served as chairman of an advisory group on labor and diplomacy with secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, advancing the cause of democracy and global worker rights. He helped lead the labor movement’s support for the independent Polish trade union Solidarnosc in the 1980s and was a vocal critic of oppression in any form, leading a call for unions to boycott apartheid-era South Africa. 

Tom Donahue was absolutely committed to working people and put every ounce of his being into the labor movement he loved from the moment he joined it. All of us today stand on his shoulders.