Sweeney, a ‘New Voice,’ Elected to Lead AFL-CIO


Union leader John J. Sweeney captured the presidency of the AFL-CIO on Wednesday, winning a landmark insurgent campaign launched to turn around the wounded and long-slumbering American labor movement.

The campaign, along with marking the first contested election for the helm of the labor federation since the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, also rewrote U.S. labor history by putting the first minority into a top executive office. That official is Linda Chavez-Thompson, 51, a Texas-bred Latina and sharecropper’s daughter who was elected by acclamation to the newly created job of executive vice president.

Rounding out the victory for the Sweeney forces was the election of the remaining member of the so-called New Voice ticket, Richard L. Trumka, president of the United Mine Workers. Trumka, 46, known for his fiery oratory, becomes secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, traditionally the federation’s No. 2 post. The three took office immediately.


The election gives Sweeney--the head of the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s fastest-growing labor organization--and his running mates a bully pulpit for inspiring union recruiting throughout the work force.

But daunting obstacles confront the new AFL-CIO president, whose union is known for its street protests and other confrontational tactics. They range from increasingly aggressive anti-union stands by employers to the numbing inertia and dissension within organized labor itself.

Still, union leaders and other workplace authorities said the hard-fought campaign already has infused the movement with new enthusiasm.


“You have a sense that labor, at the least, is climbing back on its feet,” said Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago labor lawyer and author.

Thomas Kochan, an industrial relations expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, added, “It gives the whole labor movement a breath of fresh air and puts a whole new face on their efforts to organize.”

Sweeney, 61, the son of Irish immigrants, was elected to a two-year term at the AFL-CIO’s convention in mid-town Manhattan. Sweeney garnered 56% of the votes cast by delegates on behalf of the AFL-CIO’s 13 million members and 78 unions, versus 44% for his onetime mentor, Thomas R. Donahue.


Donahue, 67, served as secretary-treasurer for nearly 16 years and was named president on an interim basis Aug. 1 after his predecessor, Lane Kirkland, was driven into retirement by the Sweeney candidacy.

But Donahue, after getting off to a late start in the race for the full two-year term, never was able to seriously erode the lead held by Sweeney.

Also defeated was Barbara J. Easterling, 61, who filled Donahue’s former post as secretary-treasurer in August, becoming the first woman to gain a top executive post of the labor federation.

While the elections of Sweeney and Trumka were expected, the prospects for Chavez-Thompson remained in doubt until Wednesday. Chavez-Thompson, because she was running for a newly created job, needed a two-thirds vote to win, not just the simple majority that Sweeney and Trumka required.

But as part of an effort to paper over the rift between the two AFL-CIO factions that developed during the campaign, the opposing sides agreed to clear the way for Chavez-Thompson’s election. In connection with that deal, they also crafted an agreement to expand from 35 to 54 members the AFL-CIO’s executive council, its key decision-making body.


Underscoring the labor federation’s increasing recognition of workplace diversity, negotiators established an executive council that includes 15 women or minorities. The previous 35-member board had six women or minority members.


During the four-month election campaign, the two camps offered nearly identical platforms, both calling for stepped-up organizing and grass-roots political campaigns. Also similar were the backgrounds of Sweeney and Donahue, both men of Irish heritage who grew up in the Bronx and rose through the ranks of the SEIU.

With few ties to the AFL-CIO’s past failures, however, both Sweeney’s supporters and many outside observers suggested the insurgent ticket would go further to bring about change. Sweeney, for instance, refused to repudiate civil disobedience as an organizing tactic, leading Donahue to attack him for his militancy.

In his conciliatory acceptance remarks to the convention, Sweeney promised to hew to his campaign platform and called the election victory “a moment of hope and promise for the future.”

The challenges, however, will be huge. Unions now account for only 15.5% of the work force, down from a high of roughly 35% in 1945.


That sharp fall has been aggravated in recent years by declining employment in heavy industries that once were the bastions of organized labor and the failure of most unions to seize opportunities to recruit workers in growing service fields.

And lax enforcement of U.S. labor laws along with loopholes in the statutes have made it increasingly difficult to organize workers in this country than in other Western democracies, including Canada.


Meanwhile, with the ascent of conservative Republicans in Congress, programs and agencies cherished by unions--from Medicare to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration--face budget cuts.

The recent election campaign, however, dovetailed with developments suggesting that organized labor is reawakening. Both Sweeney and Donahue championed the interests of minorities and women, recognizing that their growing numbers in the work force reflect a vast potential pool of union recruits.

There also has been a continuing stream of union mergers, a move intended to cut duplication and bring labor some of the economic efficiency already enjoyed by employers.

And these developments come amid growing recognition that widespread worker concerns about stagnant wages, job insecurity and the eroding middle class could translate into greater interest in unions.

“There are substantial numbers of workers who are not now unionized who are ripe for the picking,” U.S. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich said in an interview.

“What I hear again and again, what people tell me, is that they have no bargaining leverage, and they feel treated badly by employers, and they they feel the old implicit employment contract has been breached.”


The Sweeney ticket adds a new dimension to the picture. Under Sweeney’s reign the last 15 years, the SEIU nearly doubled its membership to 1.1 million. While roughly half of that growth came from merging existing union locals into the SEIU, the other gains came from organizing workers at previously non-union companies--an impressive achievement in a period when labor overall suffered widespread declines.

A hallmark of the SEIU organizing has been its militant “Justice for Janitors” campaigns, tapping a base of low-paid and mostly minority workers. The campaigns feature confrontational, 1930s-style tactics where demonstrators try to pressure landlords into signing union contracts by taking over building lobbies and carrying out emotional street protests; at an infamous Century City march in 1990, demonstrators were beaten by police.

The SEIU also threw its weight into the recent Los Angeles County budget battles by, among other things, lobbying the Clinton Administration for federal aid that saved the jobs of many county health care workers belonging to the union.

To enliven organizing throughout the AFL-CIO, Sweeney has proposed spending $20 million a year on such efforts, roughly 30% of the federation’s budget. Among other things, he wants to expand the operations of the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute, a training school for organizers, and establish an office of strategic planning to coordinate organizing activities among unions.

During the course of the four-month campaign, the image of Sweeney as a star in the labor movement lost some of its sparkle. Attention was drawn to the fact that for years, while serving as union president, he has received salaries from both his old union local in New York City as well as the parent organization--a practice that is legal but raises ethical issues among unionists.

Sweeney--who will earn $192,500 a year as AFL-CIO president, down from more than $200,000 as head of his union--said the practice was justified because he continued to work for the local even as he served as the parent organization’s president.


Still, even many of Donahue’s backers express fondness for the personable Sweeney and admiration for his ability to attract talented staffers. Two graduates of his staff now serve as assistant labor secretaries in the Clinton Administration.