Relaxed, his hands in his pockets, John J. Sweeney thanked a cluster of home care employees for toiling at low pay as attendants to the infirm and the elderly.
In an instant, the ruddy-cheeked labor leader had established an easy rapport with his audience of Latino and African American workers. “My mother was a domestic worker,” he explained. “I guess that’s what started me on my path.”
For Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union, it was a customary scene. He heads the nation’s fastest-growing union and is leading a historic insurgent campaign to seize control of its umbrella organization--the AFL-CIO. But he hasn’t gotten to where he is with a labor leader’s stereotypical bravado.
Instead, relying on his low-key “man of the people” charm, Sweeney has built and inspired a 450-member staff that includes some of the most brash and most successful rabble-rousers in the American labor movement.
“He’s willing to let other people take the credit. He has absolutely no ego that gets in the way,” said Bob Welsh, chief of staff at the service workers union throughout Sweeney’s 15 years as its top officer.
Whatever drama Sweeney, 61, himself lacks, he more than makes up for by injecting excitement into the labor movement. He is the early favorite to win the October balloting for the presidency of the AFL-CIO, the first contested election in the 40-year history of the modern labor federation.
As militant in labor strategy as he is amiable personally, Sweeney has orchestrated the service workers union’s hallmark in-your-face drives to organize low-paid workers. Those include the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles, marked by street protests and an infamous Century City march in 1990 in which demonstrators were beaten by police.
This month, Sweeney flew from Washington, where he is based, to Southern California to speak up for the embattled employees of Los Angeles County, more than half of whom are represented by his union. Sweeney, not usually known for his fiery oratory, warned the Board of Supervisors that if it approves the elimination of up to 18,255 county jobs, his union will launch “massive resistance and political retributions.” The board is expected to decide its budget cuts by the end of this month.
Focusing Labor’s Clout
Now Sweeney proposes to bring his 1930s-style confrontational methods to the podium of Big Labor.
If he wins a two-year term in October, Sweeney says he will devote $10 million annually from the labor federation’s budget to organizing workers--pushing far more aggressively into the arena than AFL-CIO leaders have before. “We want to build up the culture of organizing,” he said.
Sweeney also plans to establish a permanent strategic campaign unit, instead of the previous ad hoc efforts, that would focus organized labor’s clout by coordinating the efforts of the various unions.
In addition, Sweeney proposes setting up a national political training center to recruit and develop political candidates and campaign managers, along with grass-roots activists.
Some labor observers consider the proposals a bold break with the past. “It would mean the greatest sea change in labor-management relations that we have seen since the 1930s,” said Matthew Tallmer, editor of two Washington-based newsletters that track labor relations and union developments.
“He’s proposing putting the AFL-CIO, with all of its political, financial and legal muscle, into organizing, contract negotiations and strikes. . . . It would force companies to deal with the entire labor movement rather than one local of, say, the Teamsters.”
Son of a Bus Driver
Still, given the broad economic and legal forces that have contributed mightily to the decline in union membership, many are skeptical about how much any labor leader can accomplish. “Is it going to bring labor back? No. But it may keep it from disappearing further, and that’s pretty important,” said Chicago labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan.
The son of Irish immigrants, Sweeney recalls fond boyhood memories of talking about labor issues and going to union meetings with his father, a New York City bus driver.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Iona College in New York, he went to work in the research department at IBM. But when a research opening came up nine months later at what was then the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, Sweeney said he gladly took a one-third cut in pay to accept the position.
Later he moved to the Service Employees International Union, landing a position with the help of his friend and mentor, Tom Donahue, now the No. 2 officer of the AFL-CIO and his rival for the presidency.
Sweeney rose through the ranks in New York, becoming president of SEIU Local 32B-32J, the nation’s largest union local and one whose membership consists largely of office building janitors. It was in those days that his feelings blossomed for the cause of janitors and other workers who, in Sweeney’s view, badly need union support to combat low pay and miserable working conditions.
“From that experience, I was able to identify new groups of workers and new areas that were good organizing targets,” he said.
By the time Sweeney became president of the union in 1980, janitors--the original core of the union--were dwindling in the ranks. For the union, it had become much easier to bring in new members from the health care industry and the public sector than from private industries, where downsizing, international competition and deregulation were already eating away at membership.
In the case of union janitors, the specific menace was landlords’ growing reliance on outside contractors. Today, after 10 years of hard organizing and a constant battle to offset losses in some markets with gains elsewhere, the ranks of the union’s janitors are up 35,000.
But perhaps the biggest benefit to the union has been the inspiration that fighting for these mostly minority and immigrant workers appears to provide. Sweeney has led the charge by meeting with janitors and participating in their publicity-grabbing marches. In doing so, he has demonstrated a style that, his backers say, sets him apart from labor leaders such as the aloof Lane Kirkland, the man Sweeney hopes to succeed as president of the AFL-CIO.
Sweeney’s union also has been hard-nosed in organizing nursing home workers. It has used strikes along with marches and corporate campaigns designed to extract bargaining agreements by embarrassing employers into submission.
During Sweeney’s 15 years as president, the union’s membership has shot up from 625,000 to 1.1 million. Over roughly the same period, union membership as a percentage of the U.S. work force has dropped from nearly 25% to 15.5% overall, including only 10.9% in the private sector.
To be sure, not all of Sweeney’s initiatives have been success stories. Tallmer, the newsletter editor, noted that even though the union has managed to organize large numbers of nursing home workers, it has struggled to negotiate labor contracts with their employers.
Critics also point out that half of the SEIU’s growth has come from gobbling up independent unions rather than organizing non-union workers and bringing them into labor’s camp. One of the prize catches came in 1984 when the union captured the 70,000-member California State Employees Assn. Today, the Service Employees International Union is the biggest union in the state and the fourth-biggest in the nation.
Even in his own union, Sweeney has critics.
Backing of Big Unions
At Los Angeles’ Local 399, which handles the city’s Justice for Janitors campaign, leaders of a dissident group that last month won a majority on the executive board complain that the local’s previous regime refuses to relinquish control. They accuse the Sweeney administration of ignoring the brewing tensions, which broke into public view on Friday when the dissidents staged a sit-in at the downtown union hall.
Cesar Oliva Sanchez, a former janitor who was elected executive vice president at the head of the dissident ticket, said he previously had regarded Sweeney as a good leader who launched programs that benefited workers.
But now, Sanchez said, “If he’s going to run the AFL-CIO like he’s handled our problem, I have my doubts about him.”
Sweeney says he wants to help the newly elected local officials and hopes to meet with them soon.
In his bid to win the AFL-CIO’s presidency, Sweeney sometimes strains to differentiate himself from Donahue, the close friend and now rival. Donahue also proposes stepping up organizing efforts. And Donahue backers say their candidate, in 16 years as the labor federation’s No. 2 officer, has vastly broader experience with national policy issues.
But, Sweeney said of Donahue, “There’s no indication he would go as far as we would go.”
Currently, with the backing of giant unions, such as the Teamsters and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Sweeney camp says it has nearly 60% of the vote. Each of the nearly 80 AFL-CIO unions, representing 13.3 million workers, are expected to vote in blocs, with all of their votes going to Sweeney or Donahue.
One big stumbling block for Sweeney, however, is that Donahue likely will have the benefits of incumbency. Kirkland, in a move to boost his longtime second-in-command’s chances of winning a full term, is resigning Aug. 1 to clear the way for Donahue to take over the top job for nearly three months before the Oct. 26 election.
For Sweeney, one of the most difficult issues is campaigning against his onetime mentor; in fact, Sweeney had asked Donahue to run for the job, and entered the race at a time when Donahue was saying he wasn’t running.
“We will continue to be friends--I hope,” Sweeney said.
He added in one of his campaign refrains, “This campaign isn’t about who heads the AFL-CIO. It’s about where the AFL-CIO is headed.”