Prof. Joseph A. McCartin, Georgetown University
The CLN lost a loyal friend and the labor movement lost one of the great champions of its history when John Joseph Sweeney died on February 1 at the age of 86. Labor leaders reared in Catholicism have played a disproportionately large role in the shaping of the American labor movement from Terence Powderly and Mother Jones in the 19th century to George Meany and Thomas R. Donahue in the 20th century, to Rich Trumka and Mary Kay Henry in the 21st. Among them, Sweeney’s contribution was distinctive. He was a bridge-builder who helped move labor beyond the Cold War, drew young people into the movement, transformed labor’s relationship with immigrants and the immigration question, welcomed women into top leadership, and revamped labor’s political operations. In all of this, he drew generously from the values of his church and its social teachings.
Many obituaries have attested to John Sweeney’s remarkable story, from his birth to Irish Catholic immigrants in the Bronx, to his Catholic education from kindergarten through college, his involvement with the Young Christian Workers, his study with labor priest Phil Carey, S.J., his early work with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, his recruitment by former CLN board member Thomas R. Donahue to the staff of Local 32B of the then-named Building Service Employees Union, his rise to local president by 1976, to SEIU’s international president in 1980, and his election (over his onetime mentor Donahue) as AFL-CIO president in 1995.
Many assessments of his career have called attention to his major accomplishments, from turning SEIU into labor’s most vibrant union in the 1980s through campaigns like Justice for Janitors. They have noted the role he played in transforming the AFL-CIO, as on his watch a generation of organizers was trained at the Organizing Institute, Union Summer was launched, student-labor solidarity groups proliferated on campuses, living wage campaigns blossomed, labor embraced environmentalists in the Seattle protests of 1999, the AFL-CIO threw its support behind comprehensive immigration reform, welcomed a new wave of immigrants into the labor movement, opened up leadership to women, and revitalized labor’s political program.
Assessments have also noted Sweeney’s failures. Much to his chagrin, and despite his total dedication to labor’s cause, he was unable to reverse its declining membership or preserve its unity in the face of steep challenges.
Yet CLN members know that Sweeney’s legacy cannot be measured alone by tallying his accomplishments and failures. His greatest legacy may lie in the impact he had on those whose lives he touched.
Back in the 1920s, A.J. Muste observed that most labor leaders have “divided souls” for they lead organizations that must be capable of acting both like disciplined armies at some times and like inclusive “town meetings” in which all feel like they have a voice at other times. Shifting between the roles of army general and town meeting facilitator, Muste found, was “obviously painful” for most labor leaders, and many were simply unable to balance the roles. Not so for John Sweeney. Precious few in our history were as good at balancing the competing imperatives of great union leadership as he. And he was anything but a “divided soul.” To the contrary, his roles came to him naturally and for him everything was connected—faith, family, vocation, politics, and simple human caring. For him it was all a seamless garment. We are the better for having known him. May he rest in peace and may his memory be an inspiration and a blessing to those to follow in his footsteps.