AFL-CIO President Emeritus Thomas R. Donahue, one of the most influential leaders of the postwar labor movement, died Feb. 18 in a Washington, D.C., hospital at the age of 94.
Donahue served as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO under Lane Kirkland, who led the national labor federation for 16 years. He was AFL-CIO president from August to October 1995. “Tom Donahue was a good man and a strong fighter for all working people,” stated SIU President Emeritus Michael Sacco. “Tom was someone you could count on. You always knew where he stood and that was on the side of workers.”
The Bronx, New York-born Donahue began his labor career as a part-time organizer with the Retail Clerks International Union in New York City. He joined the Building Service Employees International Union in 1960. From 1967 to 1969, he was Assistant U.S Labor Secretary.
In 1973, then AFL-CIO President George Meany tapped Donahue to be his executive assistant. When Meany retired in 1979, Donahue said, “My hopes for the labor movement are growth, dynamism, militancy.”
One of his most often quoted remarks was “The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor.”
AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler and Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond released the following joint statement on Donahue’s passing:
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of former AFL-CIO president Tom Donahue and extend our condolences to his family, friends and loved ones.
“Tom was an innovator, intellectual and a visionary labor leader who was ahead of his time. Long before the future of work and the impact of technology on workers became a robust policy debate, Donahue was creating a blueprint for unions that encouraged experimentation with new approaches and technology to expand worker organizing and increase the labor movement’s influence.
“That blueprint served as a guide that still influences union innovation today. He was a brilliant strategist who had the keen insight to foreshadow challenges and opportunities workers would face well into the future, and our movement is much better for it today.
“In a career that spanned six decades starting as a part-time organizer with the Retail Clerks International Union in New York City and rising to secretary-treasurer and president of the AFL-CIO, Donahue put every ounce of his being into the labor movement he loved from the moment he joined it. A tireless champion of organizing, he helped create the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute which opened doors for a new generation of organizers. Throughout his distinguished career as an organizer and labor leader, Donahue always pushed the labor movement to embrace innovation and change to keep propelling workers forward.
“Donahue’s influence extended well beyond our nation’s borders. He served as chairman of an advisory group on labor and diplomacy with Secretaries of State Madeline Albright and Colin Powell, powerfully advancing the cause of democracy and ensuring the link between anti-democratic movements and worker oppression was clear to leaders here and abroad. He helped lead the labor movement’s support for the independent Polish trade union Solidarnosc in the 1980s and was a vocal critic of oppression in any form, leading a call for unions to boycott apartheid-era South Africa.
“Throughout his legendary career, he never forgot his roots in the Bronx. His father was a union deckhand with the Staten Island Ferry, giving him an early education in the movement that would shape his life. He believed deeply in the collective power workers wield when we have a union on the job. Everyone in the labor movement who knew Donahue respected both his absolute commitment to working people and his formidable intellect. All of us in the labor movement today in a new age of organizing and technological change stand on his shoulders. “Our thoughts are with his wife Rachelle, daughter and grandchildren during this difficult time.” Donahue leaves behind his wife of nearly 44 years, Rachelle Horowitz; his daughter, Nancy Donahue (Tom Fogarty), and six grandchildren: Matt Fogarty, Kerry Fogarty (Kevin Carrig), Kate Fogarty, Erin Donahue, Megan Donahue, and Mary Clare Donahue, and their mother, Emily Donahue. He was preceded in death by his son, Thomas Reilly Donahue III, in 2018. Donahue’s funeral mass was held March 2 at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Arlington, Virginia. He was interred March 4 at Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York.
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