President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks as prepared at a memorial service for AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney:
Maureen, Trish, John, Kennedy—the entire Sweeney family—I know these losses never get easier, especially on days like today, John’s birthday. But I hope you take comfort in knowing how John and his values, vision, and work live on in so many of us.
As I look around the room, and listen to the previous speakers, there is no one more beloved and admired than John Sweeney. And being here together today, on his birthday, when we are seeing working people rising up all around us, it makes me happy to think about his life’s work and what he’d be thinking about this moment in the labor movement.
Six decades he dedicated to our movement—and what a model John gave us all to follow. One where we never lose sight of the critical role working people play in our country and we never stop fighting for justice.
When John was growing up in the Bronx, his family, led by two hard-working Irish immigrants lived that American ideal—that this was a country where hard work could help you live the life you dream of. And throughout his life, John used every bit of power he had to help make that dream real for millions of working families across our nation.
His childhood was also an illustration of the union difference—his mother who worked as a domestic worker had no one looking out for her—but his father, who worked as a bus driver, had the solidarity of a union behind him—providing him with safety and fair wages. Like so many other injustices he encountered, that difference never sat right with John. And he worked to address it every day because he knew that fundamental truth: Fairness is fundamental, and we are stronger together.
When he saw working people being overlooked or mistreated, he took action. He would fight, he would negotiate, he would do whatever it took to create change.
He may have been soft spoken, but his message was heard loud and clear. And he got results—time and time again.
You’ve heard this afternoon a consistent theme—John’s drive in fighting for fairer wages and working conditions. Equity—he saw how the industry exploited the difference between male and female janitors by paying them less—and so he merged 32B with 32J to address the pay gap and create greater solidarity. He brought SEIU to new heights. And he pushed the AFL-CIO to become a new force for union organizing and mobilizing—because he believed so deeply in the power of joining together.
So much of who John was, stemmed from his faith, which taught him that we are called to “encourage one another and build each other up.” And for him, it really was a calling.
He worked tirelessly to bring people together and to build bridges, but he never shied away from a righteous fight. He put in the hours and never gave up on his relentless pursuit of progress. Even in the darkest moments, he would find that flicker, that glimmer of hope lighting the way forward.
When John was running to be the president of the AFL-CIO, he ran on the “New Voice” ticket. He delivered on that promise. He was an innovator, always pushing our movement forward. That’s a spirit I hope to channel day in and day out by being bold, taking risks, and pushing for the future we all want to live and work in.
John was called a “force for inclusion and activism” by President Clinton—“a legend, plain and simple” by President Trumka—and a friend and inspiration by many, myself included.
When President Obama was awarding John the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, he said, “Family. Faith. Fidelity to the common good. These are the values that make John Sweeney who he is; values at the heart of [the] labor movement.”
May we all continue to live those values in John’s honor, and may God bless him and keep him.