I am very sad this evening, having just learned of the passing of John Sweeney, President Emeritus of the AFL-CIO.
If you knew him, you undoubtedly would agree with the assessment that he was a rare breed in Labor. Always soft spoken, some might say he had an outward mannerism of an accountant. Or an old Irish priest. He wanted a fair deal for everyone who was overlooked, ignored or downright discriminated against. There were so many. No doubt that’s why he turned to organizing. And 25 years ago, when the AFL-CIO seemed to lose its commitment to organizing, John led the revolt. His team ousted the establishment leaders. He did it with an interesting maneuver, partnering with Central Labor Councils’ new young leaders across the country, pulling off a parliamentary surprise on the old guard. And won.
As president of the sprawling AFL-CIO he brought new life to our movement. He supported the local chapters – those same labor councils – as the means to a build grassroots resurgent union movement. He prioritized organizing. And looked everywhere for potential organizers to give them opportunities. He always took time to talk with young unionists to encourage them, support them, hear about their campaigns. In fact, it’s what he loved the most.
He was loyal. When Jim Wood, then leader of the LA Federation of Labor died, John told his assistant, he needed go to his funeral, which meant another exhausting one-day round trip to the Coast, (he promised his wife he’d be with her every night) his assistant replied, “You don’t need to go. He wasn’t the leader very long.” John said, “I knew him.” And that was it.
John Sweeney was respectful, especially to the least of us. I was with him in Orange County as he arrived to speak at the CLC. He had ordered a room for a few hours so he could rest prior to the event. The woman at reception didn’t get it and said “No, we’re full tonight.” He was clearly exhausted, and politely asked again. She said no, again. But he never raised his voice. That’s when I learned from him that he would never, ever complain about a worker to the boss.
John Sweeney BELIEVED! He believed in the teachings of his Catholic Church. And he believed in the UNION. He merged the two in his book, “America Deserves a Raise,” where he showed that the problems of income equality and social justice will find their solution with a stronger labor movement.
I’m sad today. And yet, determined. John Sweeney’s life will continue to inspire us to build and strengthen the labor movement he loved so dearly.