John J. Sweeney, a New York union researcher who rose to the top of the American labor movement in the 1990s, leading the AFL-CIO for 14 years through an era of declining union membership but growing political influence, died Monday at his home. in Bethesda, Maryland, he was 86 years old.
Carolyn Bobb, an AFL-CIO spokeswoman, confirmed the death. She did not specify the cause.
As president, from 1995 to 2009, of the country’s largest trade union federation – 56 unions with 10 million members towards the end of his term – Mr. Sweeney demonstrated political strength with thousands of volunteers and helped in electing Barack Obama as president in 2008. Over the years, he has also helped elect Democrats to congressional seats, governorates and state legislatures across the country.
Its more difficult task, a quest to reinvigorate and diversify the faltering labor movement itself, has had the weight of history weighing against it.
For decades in the 20th century, workers had not welcomed women, African Americans, Latinos, or Asian Americans, often engaging in blatantly discriminatory tactics to preserve the dominance of white men in the place. of work. Substantial but uneven gains have been made since the civil rights era of the 1960s, when unions began removing “white only” clauses from their constitutions and bylaws.
But Mr Sweeney, still faced with an unbalanced demographics, has planned a radical change. He crossed paths to bring women and minorities into the fold, often in leadership positions; made alliances with civil rights groups, students, university professors and the clergy; and championed low-wage workers, abandoning the traditional AFL-CIO focus on protecting the best-paying union jobs.
In Mr. Sweeney’s campaign for the federation presidency, his running mate, for the newly created post of executive vice president, was Linda Chavez-Thompson, the daughter of a Texas sharecropper. She was the first member of a minority group to be elected to the highest ranks of the union executive.
The 1995 ballot itself was unique: it was the first contested election in the history of the federation, which was created in 1955 by the amalgamation of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations after a long separation.
An iconic Sweeney initiative has encouraged the recruitment of thousands of immigrants into his unions. Many members had long been hostile to undocumented workers, accusing them of stealing union jobs and lowering pay scales. Mr Sweeney chided the speech as discriminatory and called for justice that includes better treatment for underpaid immigrants and a path to citizenship for those illegally in the United States.
Critics have argued that Mr Sweeney’s policies are locked into a liberal past, deploying mid-20th century civil rights and labor union strategies to organize 21st century workers with internet skills. Mr Sweeney dismissed the claim, just as he had pushed back against companies moving jobs overseas and denounced the hostilities many young white-collar workers had expressed towards old-fashioned unions.
In a labor movement that has been on the decline since 1979, when union membership peaked at 21 million, Mr Sweeney pushed his constituent unions to dramatically increase spending on organizing. He has often said that his first priority was to reverse the long slide and significantly expand the union base.
But in 2009, when he resigned, his vision of a dramatic unionization surge comparable to those of the late 1930s depression and postwar 1940s had not materialized. In fact, the overall union membership in America had fallen under his watch to around 12% versus 15% of the workforce, a trend that has continued ever since, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Based on the optimism that supporters of the labor movement felt in 1995 when he was elected, I think it’s hard not to be disappointed with the results,” said Richard W. Hurd, professor of relations at work at Cornell University, New York. Times in 2009. “How far back you can trace back to John Sweeney is a whole other question.”
In an exit interview with The Times in his Washington office – looking across Lafayette Park to the White House, where he spoke to President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s and to Mr. Obama more recently – Mr. Sweeney spoke optimistically about the Great Recession, which had been going on for more than a year and had already caused thousands of layoffs, further refining union ranks.
“I think the recession is going to lead people to the conclusion that they can’t solve their problems on their own, and they have to look to organize themselves,” he said. And, noting that his father had been a union bus driver in New York City, he learned a lesson from his childhood.
“Thanks to the union, my dad got things like vacation days or a raise,” he says. “But my mother, who worked as a domestic worker, had no one. It taught me from a young age the difference between workers who are organized and workers who were alone.
John Joseph Sweeney was born in the Bronx on May 5, 1934 to James and Agnes Sweeney, Irish Catholic immigrants whose struggles in America had shaped John’s social perceptions from an early age. The boy had accompanied his father to many union meetings, where he learned about class and work inequalities and union efforts to improve wages and working conditions.
He attended St. Barnabas Elementary School and graduated from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx in 1952. As an adult, he resolved to find a future in organized work. He worked as a gravedigger and building porter (and joined his first union) to pay his way through Iona College, a Catholic school in New Rochelle, New York, where he received a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1956.
He briefly worked as a clerk for IBM, but took a big pay cut to become a researcher for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in Manhattan. He met Thomas R. Donahue, a union representative of the International Union of Construction Services Employees, Local 32B, who persuaded him in 1960 to join his union as contract manager. Mr. Sweeney would face Mr. Donahue in a race for the best job job 35 years later.
In 1962, Mr. Sweeney married Maureen Power, a schoolteacher. She survives him, along with their children, John Jr. and Patricia Sweeney; two sisters, Cathy Hammill and Peggy King; and a granddaughter.
The construction workers union was one of the most progressive of its time, representing 40,000 porters, doormen and maintenance workers in 5,000 commercial and residential buildings in New York City. Its contracts guaranteed wage increases, medical coverage, scholarships for members’ children, and demands that employers hire and encourage workers regardless of race, creed or color.
Mr. Sweeney rose through the ranks and in 1976 was elected President of Local 32B of the renowned International Union of Service Employees. Soon, its 45,000 members hit thousands of buildings for 17 days and won major pay and benefit increases. He later merged Local 32B with Local 32J, representing janitors, and in 1979 he went on strike again for contract improvements.
In 1980 he was elected president of the 625,000-member national SEIU and, moving his base to Washington, began to merge with unions of public sector employees and workers in clerical jobs, health care and food services. He lobbied for tougher federal health and safety laws and spent a lot to organize new members. In 1995, it represented 1.1 million union members and was a national power in the labor movement.
Work was at a crossroads. Years of grassroots frustration with Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO since 1979, spilled over into a revolt of union presidents in 1995. Mr. Kirkland, whose internationalist view of work had made him a hero of the Polish solidarity movement but had left him indifferent, even hostile, to the reforms proposed for the unions at home, was forced to resign.
The 1995 election pitted Mr. Sweeney against Mr. Donahue, his old friend from Local 32B, who had become secretary-treasurer of the federation and was the alleged heir to Mr. Kirkland. But Mr Donahue’s ties to Mr Kirkland forced him to defend the status quo, and Mr Sweeney’s progressive calls for growth and change won the presidency with 57% of the delegates, representing 7.2 million. of members.
He was re-elected for four more terms of two to four years each, the last time in 2005, when he broke his promise not to stay in office beyond 70 years. He retired in 2009 at age 75 and was replaced by Richard L. Trumka, his longtime secretary-treasurer and former president of the United Mine Workers.
In a statement posted on the AFL-CIO website Monday, Mr. Trumka said of Mr. Sweeney: “He has been guided into unionism by his Catholic faith, and not a single day has passed. elapsed where he did not put the work needs. People first. John saw his leadership as a spiritual call, a divine act of solidarity in a world beset by distance and division.
Mr. Sweeney has written a memoir entitled “Looking Back, Moving Forward: My Life in the American Labor Movement” (2017), and has co-authored two books: “America Needs a Raise: Fighting for Economic Security and Social Justice ”(1996, with David Kusnet) and“ Solutions for the New Workforce: Policies for a New Social Contract ”(1989, with Karen Nussbaum).
In 2010, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. “He revitalized the American labor movement,” Obama said at a ceremony at the White House, “emphasizing labor organization and social justice, and was a strong supporter of American workers.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.