John J. Sweeney, a New York union researcher who climbed the height of the American labor movement in the 1990s and led the AFL-CIO through an era of dwindling union membership but increasing political influence, died Monday at his Bethesda home , Md. He was 86 years old.
Carolyn Bobb, an AFL-CIO spokeswoman, confirmed the death. She did not give the cause.
From 1995 to 2009, Mr. Sweeney served as president of the country’s largest trade union federation – 56 unions with 10 million members by the end of his term – and with thousands of volunteers, he strengthened the political forces of the work and helped elect Barack Obama to the 2008 presidency. Over the years, he also helped elect Democrats to seats in Congress, governorates, and state legislatures across the country.
Its more difficult task of revitalizing and diversifying the wavering labor movement itself had the weight of history against it.
For decades in the 20th century, work had not welcomed women, African American, Latinos, or Asian-Americans, and had often resorted to overtly discriminatory tactics to maintain white male dominance in the workplace. Significant but unequal gains have been made since the civil rights era in the 1960s, when unions began removing “whites only” clauses from their constitutions and statutes.
But Mr. Sweeney, still faced with one-sided demographics, planned a fundamental change. He cruised to bring women and minorities into the group, often in leadership positions; Alliances with civil rights groups, students, university professors and clergymen; and advocated low-wage workers, moving away from the AFL-CIO’s traditional emphasis on protecting the highest paid union jobs.
In Mr. Sweeney’s campaign for the federal presidency, Linda Chavez-Thompson, the daughter of a Texas stock trader, was his assistant to the newly created post of Executive Vice President. She was the first member of a minority to ever be elected to the top management positions of organized workers.
The 1995 vote itself was unique: it was the first election in the history of the Federation created in 1955 by the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations after a long alienation.
An initiative signed by Sweeney encouraged the recruitment of thousands of immigrants into his unions. Many members have long been hostile to undocumented workers, accusing them of stealing union jobs and pulling down the wage scales. Mr Sweeney blamed such conversations as discriminatory and called for justice that included better treatment of underpaid immigrants and a path to illegal citizenship for those in the United States.
Critics claimed that Mr. Sweeney’s policies were anchored in a liberal past, employing mid-20th century civil rights and union strategies to organize 21st century internet literate workers. Mr Sweeney denied this claim, just as he had rejected companies moving jobs overseas and denounced the hostilities many young workers had expressed against old-line unions.
In a labor movement that had declined since 1979 when union membership peaked at 21 million, Mr Sweeney urged his unions to significantly increase spending on the organization. He often said that his first priority was to reverse the long slide and significantly expand the base of the labor.
By the time he resigned in 2009, his vision of a dramatic boom in union formation comparable to that of the late Depression of the 1930s and post-war 1940s had not materialized. In fact, America’s total union membership had dropped from 15 percent of the workforce to about 12 percent, a trend that has continued since then, according to the United States Labor Statistics Bureau.
“Given the optimism workers’ movement felt in his 1995 election, I find it hard not to be disappointed with the results,” Richard W. Hurd, professor of industrial relations at Cornell University, told The New York Times at the Year 2009. “How much of that you can attribute to John Sweeney is a whole other question.”
In an outgoing interview with The Times from his Washington office – looking across Lafayette Park to the White House, where he spoke to President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s and more recently Mr Obama – Mr Sweeney was optimistic about The Big One The recession, which had lasted for over a year and had already resulted in thousands of layoffs, continued to win the union ranks.
“I think the recession will make people feel that they cannot solve their problems by themselves and that they have to take care of the organization,” he said. And discovering his father was a unionized New York bus driver, he learned a childhood lesson.
“Because of the union, my father got things like vacation days or an increase in wages,” he said. “But my mother, who worked as a domestic servant, had no one. At a young age I learned the difference between organized and independent workers. “
John Joseph Sweeney was born in the Bronx on May 5, 1934, to James and Agnes Sweeney, Irish Catholic immigrants whose struggles in America had shaped John’s social perception from an early age. The boy had accompanied his father to many union meetings where he learned of class and job differences, as well as union efforts to improve wages and working conditions.
He attended St. Barnabas Elementary School and graduated from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx in 1952. When he grew up he decided to find a future in organized work. He worked as a gravedigger and doorman (and joined his first union) to pay his way through Iona College, a Catholic school in New Rochelle, NY, where he received a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1956.
He worked briefly as an employee at IBM, but took a drastic wage cut to become a researcher at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in Manhattan. He met Thomas R. Donahue, a union representative for the Building Union Employees International Union, Local 32B, who persuaded him in 1960 to join his union as a contract director. Mr. Sweeney would face Mr. Donahue 35 years later to run for the top worker position.
In 1962, Mr. Sweeney married Maureen Power, a schoolteacher. She survived him with their children John Jr. and Patricia Sweeney; two sisters, Cathy Hammill and Peggy King; and a granddaughter.
The construction workers union was one of the most progressive of its time, representing 40,000 porters, doormen, and maintenance workers in 5,000 commercial and residential buildings in New York City. The contracts guaranteed pay increases, health insurance, college scholarships for members’ children, and demands employers make and encourage employees regardless of race, creed, or color.
Mr. Sweeney rose through the ranks and was elected President of Local 32B of the renamed Service Employees International Union in 1976. Soon its 45,000 members struck thousands of buildings for 17 days and gained significant increases in wages and benefits. He later merged Local 32B with Local 32J, the caretaker, and again proposed contract improvements in 1979.
In 1980, he was elected president of the 625,000-member national SEIU and began moving his base to Washington with unions of public officials and office, healthcare and hospitality workers. He pushed for stricter federal health and safety laws and spent large amounts of money organizing new members. By 1995 it represented 1.1 million union members and was a national power in the labor movement.
Work was at a crossroads. Years of frustration with Lane Kirkland, AFL-CIO president since 1979, stalled in a 1995 uprising by union presidents. Mr. Kirkland, whose internationalist vision of work had made him a hero of the Polish solidarity movement but left him unmoved, even hostile to proposed reforms for unions at home, was forced to resign.
In the 1995 election, Mr. Sweeney ran against Mr. Donahue, his old friend of Local 32B, who had risen to become Federation Treasurer and who appeared to be the heir to Mr. Kirkland. But Mr. Donahue’s ties to Mr. Kirkland forced him to defend the status quo, and Mr. Sweeney’s continuing demands for growth and change won the presidency with 57 percent of the delegates, representing 7.2 million members.
He was re-elected for four further terms of two to four years each, the last time in 2005 when he broke a promise not to remain in office beyond the age of 70. He retired in 2009 at the age of 75 and was succeeded by Richard L Trumka, his longtime secretary and treasurer and former president of the United Mine Workers.
In a statement posted on the AFL-CIO’s website on Monday, Mr Trumka said of Mr Sweeney: “He was led into unionism by his Catholic faith and not a single day went by meeting the needs of the work didn’t put people first. John viewed his leadership as a spiritual calling, a divine act of solidarity in a world plagued by distance and division. “
Mr. Sweeney wrote an essay titled “Retrospect, Progress: My Life in the American Labor Movement” (2017) and was the co-author of two books, America Needs Elevation: The Fight for Economic Security and Social Justice. (1996, with David Kusnet) and “Solutions for the New Workforce: Guidelines for a New Social Contract” (1989, with Karen Nussbaum).
In 2010, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. “He has revived the American labor movement,” Obama said at a ceremony in the White House. “He emphasized union organization and social justice and was a powerful advocate for American workers.”
Alex Traub contributed to the coverage.