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Saturday, February 6, 2021

Respected national labor leader John Sweeney dies

Led reform effort within the American labor movement

By Will Collette 

AFL-CIO President Emeritus John Sweeney died on February 1 at the age of 86.

Mr. Sweeney served as President of AFL-CIO from 1995-2009, leading the AFL-CIO into becoming a revitalized force for social justice.

A life-long trade unionist, he led the AFL-CIO to embrace the fight for immigrant rights, civil rights, health care reform, stronger workplace protections against sexual harassment and for health and safety protections.

Mr. Sweeney recognized that the union movement needed to grow and do a better job at organizing to push back against aggressive anti-union employers and hostile federal legislators.

I worked at the AFL-CIO for four years before returning to Rhode Island and encountered John Sweeney many times. In the cafeteria, you’d often find him there standing in line and toting his own tray.

Once, a colleague and I saw him on 16th St. walking by himself heading back to the AFL building. We hustled over to join him since, given his prominence and the hate directed at him by the far right, we had some concerns about his safety. He didn’t share our concerns but appreciated our company.

At the AFL-CIO, I had two major projects that were of great interest to him. My first labor job was to work as senior researcher on the New Orleans-based Avondale Shipyard organizing project aimed at unionizing Louisiana’s largest employer. Mr. Sweeney saw that campaign as key to opening up other organizing opportunities in the South.

We wrapped up that project in a year, winning the NLRB-supervised election and then negotiating a good contract.

I moved in to work on the national temp worker campaign at the building trades. That led to a recognition by trade unions of the value of organizing immigrant workers and “gig workers.” President Sweeney was great to work with on this campaign.

Without John Sweeney, I doubt if any of this work would have happened. And that’s just my own small part of it. I know many colleagues who appreciated Mr. Sweeney’s calm intelligence, caring attitude and openness to new ideas. He was a good man.

He was succeeded by Richard Trumka who had served as his Secretary-Treasurer. President Trumka issued this statement: 

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.