AFL-CIO President Emeritus John Sweeney, who led an era of transformative change in America’s labor movement, passed away Feb. 1 at age 86.
“I had the honor and privilege of working closely with John Sweeney during his leadership of the AFL-CIO,” said President Joe Biden. “Time and again over the many years of our friendship, I saw how lifting up the rights, voices, and dignity of working Americans was more than a job to him. It was a sacred mission. It was a calling. “The work he led, from the factory floors of the garment workers early in his career to the highest corridors of power as a national labor leader, embodied the vital role that unions play in delivering greater wages and benefits for working people – union and nonunion alike,” Biden added. “May God bless John Sweeney, a giant of the American labor movement, and a good man.”
Sweeney was one of four children born to Irish immigrants in a working-class Bronx neighborhood shortly after the Great Depression. His parents, James and Agnes Sweeney, worked as a bus driver and a domestic worker, respectively. Sweeney always understood the struggles and the pride of working people.
“John Sweeney was a legend, plain and simple,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “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. He used work as a way to apply his values, consistently exhibiting grit over flash and pursuing progress instead of posturing.”
“John was very dedicated to improving the lives of working people,” said SIU President Michael Sacco, a fellow New Yorker and longtime friend. “He came from a humble background and rose to the top of the labor movement. But he never, never forgot where he came from.
“John was right at home on a shop floor, in a union meeting or at the White House. His priority always was the workers and their families,” Sacco added. “We both came up through the ranks – in tough times and good. He was always the same person and a great leader. We shall miss him deeply.”
Sweeney was a member of the SIU-affiliated Maritime Trades Department (MTD) Executive Board while president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) from 1984 until his election to lead the AFL-CIO in 1995. He addressed MTD conventions in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2005 and 2009.
President Obama awarded Sweeney the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. Former President Bill Clinton called Sweeney “a force for inclusion and activism.”
Sweeney was interested in politics from childhood. His mother took him to see Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s funeral train. He often spoke about his father’s loyalty to his union, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), and its colorful president, Mike Quill, with a sense of what it did for his family.
Sweeney met his wife, Maureen Power, while working on a political campaign. He ran for and was elected Democratic district leader and volunteered for John Kennedy’s presidential campaign. But it was in the labor movement where it all came together for him.
As a young man, Sweeney held jobs as a grave-digger and building porter while studying economics at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, where he joined a union for the first time. Sweeney was exposed to Catholic social teaching from an early age, including the Xavier Labor School, whose head was the inspiration for the priest in the film “On the Waterfront.” He worked throughout his career to forge alliances between Catholic leaders and the labor movement.
Sweeney took a position as a researcher with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, a predecessor to UNITE HERE. During this time, Sweeney connected with the Building Service Employees International Union, known today as the Service Employees International Union or SEIU. Sweeney worked his way up the ranks of Local 32B, winning election as president in 1976. He merged 32B, the union for male janitors, with 32J, the union of female janitors, in 1977, forming the powerful Local 32BJ – which now represents hundreds of thousands of building service workers throughout the East Coast. The merger got them a unified contract.
As president of 32BJ, Sweeney led several successful citywide strikes, winning better wages, benefits and other contract improvements. This led to his election as SEIU international president in 1980.
Sweeney transformed the SEIU – dedicating one-third of the union’s budget to new worker organizing and doubling its membership over the next decade. He focused on winning new collective bargaining for low-wage workers and was a champion for immigrant rights.
In 1995, Sweeney led an insurgent campaign to capture the presidency of America’s labor federation, the AFL-CIO. Running on a New Voice ticket with United Mine Workers of America President Trumka and AFSCME International Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson (in the newly created position of executive vice president), paving the way for the first person of color in the federation’s highest ranks, Sweeney was swept into office on a promise of bold change and a recommitment to worker organizing.
As president, Sweeney pushed the labor movement to become more diverse and take on issues of civil rights, racial justice and gender equality. He was deliberate about recruiting and supporting strong women as senior staff members, modeling diversity for the labor movement.
Sweeney also built the AFL-CIO into a political powerhouse, electing pro-worker champions and fighting for union-friendly policies at all levels of government.
He retired from the AFL-CIO in 2009 after nearly 60 years in the labor movement. He is survived by his wife, Maureen; their children, John and Patricia; a granddaughter, Kennedy; and sisters, Cathy Hammill and Peggy King. He is preceded in death by his brother, James Sweeney.