Thomas R. Donahue: Former AFL-CIO President and CLN Board Member (1928-2023)

courtesy of CLN Treasurer Joseph A. McCartin, Georgetown University

On February 18, 2023, former AFL-CIO president and long-time board member of the Catholic Labor Network, Thomas Reilly Donahue Jr., went to his heavenly reward.  If the pantheon of prominent U.S. Catholic labor leaders is filled with a multitude of revered names, from Mother Jones to Cesar Chavez, Tom Donahue’s name surely ranks among the most honored—especially in the hearts of the many CLN members who knew him.

Tom was born into a working-class family in the Bronx in 1928.  His father was a janitor, who later became a union deckhand on the Staten Island Ferry, which nurtured young Tom’s interest in unions.  Tom was the product of Catholic education through and through, graduating from the Marist Brothers’ high school, Mount St. Michael Academy, in 1944, from the Christian Brothers’ Manhattan College in 1949 (after a stint in the Navy), and from the Jesuits’ Fordham Law School (which he put himself through at night, while working as a doorman and bus driver) in 1957.  After a post-law school stint in Paris working for Radio Free Europe and the Free Europe Committee, he returned home to a job with Local 32B of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in New York, where he became a protégé of its leader, the Irish immigrant David Sullivan.  After Sullivan ascended to the presidency of SEIU, Donahue moved to Washington in 1963 to become his top aide.

Thereafter, Donahue’s rise within the labor movement was meteoric. He became a favorite of AFL-CIO president George Meany, who pushed for his appointment as Undersecretary of Labor under W. Willard Wirtz in the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson.  When his term at the Labor Department ended, Donahue returned to SEIU before being tapped in 1973 to serve as Meany’s top aide.  By the age of 45, he had already held a wide range of top positions in the labor movement and developed a reputation as one of labor’s most widely-read, strategic, and diplomatic leaders.  When Lane Kirkland succeeded Meany in 1979, Donahue was elected as the federation’s secretary-treasurer, labor’s number two post, and was widely seen as Kirkland’s ultimate successor.

Yet Donahue’s rise coincided with the onset of the Reagan era.  As unions fell into a deepening crisis in the 1980s, Donahue spearheaded the effort to revive them.  He led the AFL-CIO’s Committee on the Evolution of Work, and shaped its 1985 report, The Changing Situation of Workers and their Unions, which called on unions to devise new organizing methods and proposed that unions create associate memberships to recruit workers in difficult to organize sectors.  As Kirkland’s right hand, he also led the AFL-CIO’s unsuccessful effort to block the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993-94.

Unfortunately for Donahue, the defeats of the 1980s and early 1990s destroyed Kirkland’s presidency and undermined his own chance to ascend to labor’s top post.  Following the takeover of Congress by Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections, Kirkland lost the confidence of most AFL-CIO unions.  When dissidents approached Donahue, asking him to challenge Kirkland, he demurred.  Although he agreed with most of the dissidents’ vision he did not want to be disloyal to Kirkland.  Donahue’s refusal in turn led his onetime colleague, President John Sweeney of SEIU, to declare his candidacy as leader of the forces demanding change.  Realizing that Sweeney would defeat him, Kirkland ultimately decided to resign, elevating Donahue to the presidency AFL-CIO as his interim successor in hopes that this move would cause Sweeney to withdraw his candidacy.  Having already built his campaign, however, Sweeney refused to back down.

As a result, Sweeney and Donahue, two Irish Catholics from the Bronx with deep roots in both SEIU and Catholic social teaching, found themselves as opponents in a hard-fought election at the 1995 AFL-CIO convention.  Deepening the irony—and the hard feelings that resulted—was the fact that Donahue had hired Sweeney to his first job at SEIU and the two had been friends for more than 30 years.  Sweeney defeated Donahue at that convention, effectively halting the rise of a man who many believed was the most talented union leader of his generation, one who had been poised to lead organized labor into the 21st century.

Although he was deeply hurt by his 1995 loss, that event did not overshadow Donahue’s many accomplishments or define his later years.  He remained active with labor, democracy, and human rights causes into his 90s, ably carrying on the tradition of Catholic labor activism exemplified by his close friend, the great labor priest, Msgr. George G. Higgins.  And among the most important of Donahue’s many commitments was to the Catholic Labor Network, on whose board he served several terms.

Donahue’s marriage to Natalie Kiernan ended in divorce and his son from that marriage, Thomas R. Donahue III, died in 2018.  He is survived by his daughter Nancy Donahue, six grandchildren, and his wife of more than 43 years, longtime political activist and organizer, Rachelle Horowitz.  We join with them in celebrating a rich life offered unstintingly in service to a noble cause.  May his memory inspire us to keep alive this tradition he valued so dearly and embodied so fully.

2 replies
  1. Joseph O'Brien
    Joseph O'Brien says:

    Rest in Peace Mr. Donahue.

    You had quite a life and you made a difference.

    Helped millions of people.

    Most of whom you will never meet personally.

    On behalf of them, I say thank you.

    Joe O’Brien
    Honolulu, Hawaii

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