John J. Sweeney: Exemplary Catholic Labor Leader (1934-2021)

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.

1 reply
  1. Paul Ward
    Paul Ward says:

    About 20 years ago, when I worked in labor relations for the Archdiocese of New York, I had the incredible privilege of working directly with Mr. Sweeney when he and I worked out a resolution of a very thorny issue concerning a then active union president. He had been called in by the union’s affiliated union and together we worked out various issues that allowed the president to leave our employ, move on to other things, and preserve labor peace.

    I remember a particular point about paying out a pension to the president sooner than the pension plan allowed. I informed Mr. Sweeney that the plan could not allow for that and he told me to tell the plan administrators that “Ward and Sweeney are trying to be creative!”

    We eventually resolved the issue in a way that he and I both liked while keeping the plan faithful to its bylaws and such.

    In that episode Mr. Sweeney embodied the ardent representation of a member that needed his help, decent and respectful work with management to achieve a common goal, and a willingess to find different ways of getting from point A to point B. He was incredibly respectful of me, even though his experience and wisdom completely dwarfed anything that I brought to the table.

    Working with Mr. Sweeney, albeit briefly (over a period of a few days and several phone calls), was a signal privilege for me in my work in labor relations in Catholic institutions.

    I shall never forget it and always be grateful to have crossed paths with Mr. Sweeney.


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