John J. Sweeney : Can the Vigor be Restored to America's Labor Movement?

Harry Bernstein covered labor issues for The Times for 32 years. He interviewed John J. Sweeney after the convention ended in New York

Unions in America are in trouble. Membership, as a percentage of the work force, is less than half of its peak in the 1950s, corporations are battling them harder than at any time in recent years and a virulently anti-union majority in Congress is striving to pass legislation that will make them even weaker.

On Wednesday, soft-spoken John J. Sweeney, 61, won the first contested election for the presidency of the AFL-CIO, the only federation of labor unions in the United States. During the federation's convention here, he was elected by a narrow margin to lead labor out of the morass it is struggling in.

Sweeney is no fire-brand orator but a determined leader who helped his own union, the Service Employees International, double its membership to 1.1 million in less than a decade. He won a bitterly contested election against Thomas Donahue, who held the job briefly after the former president, Lane Kirkland, resigned because of widespread complaints that he had lost touch with the membership and, at 73, was too old. Donahue lost chiefly because he was closely linked to Kirkland. Meanwhile Sweeney, the dissenting candidate, promised to be "a new voice for labor."

Sweeney's vision of his role as America's top labor leader is to help labor regain the militancy it had in the 1930s--some say a nearly impossible task. But he says it can be done. This might be a mistake. There is so much divisiveness, and the work force is so differently structured today, that Sweeney might want to reconsider Donahue's suggestion that labor should "start building bridges" toward its enemies to achieve its goals--instead of blocking them with massive street demonstrations. But right or wrong, Sweeney was elected on his promise to lead a far more militant labor movement than the nation has seen in a long time.

Remember, few Americans--perhaps only 3%--even knew the name "Kirkland." To be the new voice of labor, Sweeney has to dramatically increase his visibility and persuade workers that unions can stop the steady decline of their wages and benefits. He must reunite a movement badly divided by the battle for the presidency. Donahue left the convention in a huff before it ended--so angry he did not even repeat the statement he made before the election, that "when this is over, we will be united again because our real enemies are outside this convention hall."

Observers say Sweeney is deceptively mild, a man of deep convictions who began life in the labor movement as an elevator operator and says that, at times, workers and unions must be confrontational, must block bridges and streets and use civil-disobedience tactics to "win the good fight for workers in and out of unions." He is married to Maureen, a former New York school teacher. They have two grown children, John, a chef, and Patricia, who is herself active in the union movement.

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Question: You have already announced your firm support for President Clinton's reelection even though he has done relatively little about the issues you say are so critical to the future of unions. Won't the President take your support for granted and do nothing more than he already has for workers and unions--since he already has your endorsement for the 1996 election?

Answer: I think just the opposite. The President, while he has done some things we have not agreed with, he has done a lot of pro-worker business. I think we have to be realistic. There is never going to be labor-law reform as long as the present Congress has the leadership it has. I think the President knows that all too well. He knows he cannot ignore our needs, because he respects the fact that the labor movement has the resources of its members and its political muscle that are essential to his campaign--and to help turn Congress around, too. He will not take us for granted.

Q: Unions have been sloganizing for decades about the need to organize more workers and become far more active in politics. Other than to call for an intensification of your efforts to achieve those goals, what changes do you plan for the federation leadership and for getting more rank-and-file members directly involved?

A: The Republicans' shameful conduct means they are doing the job of energizing our leaders and members. We are all so furious with the present Congress for what it has done to workers and what it appears about to do--unless Clinton can stop their evil ways with vetoes--that millions will join our crusade for a new commitment to help the middle-class unions created by winning higher wages and benefits for ordinary workers through collective bargaining. Many now in the middle class don't fully realize this fact of life--but as Congress hurts them more and more, they will join with us to change things. Folks never expected this Congress would be cutting so many of our essential programs to help those who already have billions. When our members and the average person fully realize just how bad the situation is, how the cuts are going to devastate their lives directly, we can turn this country around.

Q: Do you think labor should give support to the idea of a third party, a labor party, to try to gain significantly more influence within the Democratic Party, which now seems to be dominated by conservatives?

A: The Democratic Party has been the one party that has been very supportive of social change and progressive legislation. But I think we have to put strong pressure on it to do more. We will not be a rubber stamp of the Democrats. Remember, despite our admiration of many things Clinton has done, we have not given a cent yet to his presidential campaign. That is something we have to explore and make sure he is going to deal with the legislation we must have. But as of now, I see no possibility of a labor party.

If there is no indication that Clinton is going to deliver many of our needs, it will cost him dearly, because he will lose the enthusiasm he must have of our members. We have to worry whether we are really full partners--or are a group of millions of union workers he wrongly figures he can more or less ignore, and pay more attention to the conservatives and the corporations.

But we hope he echoes the exciting words of his labor secretary, Robert Reich, who told our convention he strongly believes every worker in this country should join a union and that our country needs labor unions more now than at any time in its history. You are not surprised that we completely agree with Clinton's labor secretary, Bob Reich.

Q: Is there any meaningful way to give workers and the middle class a greater share of the income that corporate America is taking out of the economy, other than to try to win more workers for unions, which you have been trying to do for so many years, with so little success?

A: I think it is a national crisis to have the income disparity we have in this country. It is wider than in any other industrialized nation in the world. There must be a national policy to address the widening gap between wages of workers and the enormous income of the wealthy. I think the greedy corporate owners have to be confronted with the fact that they are ignoring their most powerful resource--their workers.

The levels of productivity alone show how successful American workers have made corporations. They must be made to share that success, one way or another, and we hope it does not have to be with ugly confrontation. But we will do even that if it be necessary--which now seems very likely. We have to fight for a meaningful increase in the minimum wage. Clinton is helping in that battle.

Soon it will have been 40 years since the minimum wage allowed workers to keep up with the rising cost of living. We have to address the problems of collective bargaining in more aggressive ways, since far too many corporations think they can block any improvement in our wages and conditions just to increase the wealth of corporate owners. Disruptive strikes may have to be called, many unions may have to unite forces to battle selfish corporations, but we cannot let the inequalities of our society continue to grow into a real class war.

Q: You seem such a mild, quiet man. Are you really going to be able to provide new fire for organized labor?

A: Many people thought I would be a pussycat when I took over the presidency of the Service Employees International Union. If you just look at what I have accomplished in my own union, you might understand me better. I am what I am in terms of my personality, my values. My real enemies, even my opponent in the election for the presidency of the AFL-CIO, have found that I am tougher than I may seem.

My outward appearance may fool you. I hold strong beliefs that I am willing to fight hard to achieve. I have put together some of the most aggressive organizing campaigns in the country. I built one of the most aggressive grass-roots lobbying and political programs of any union. I have always felt I'd be good right out there in front, and that is where I now am. I have strived to develop, and organize into our union, women, minorities and young people.

And the doubling of our membership is an indication that I mean what I say: that is where the real fire is--doing the thing I believe in, developing our programs, taking to the streets if need be, walking picket lines with our members during strikes. That and other signs of militancy are where all the fire is, and I think that is what has to be done with all AFL-CIO programs.

Q: There are many, sometimes ugly fights within the ranks of labor, not just the fight for your election. There are more jurisdictional fights than unions have had in many years. Can you do much about those battles that seem to weaken labor so much.?

A: Yes, of course. It may be a long haul, just as it will be a long one to do something about the reactionary Congress. But we will strengthen our already-established system of ending jurisdictional fights, and try to get unions together before they get into an argument over jurisdiction and get them to work together. We have had some success doing that, and we will have more.

Q: Workers seem more distressed about losing their jobs, about being fired or laid off than they have in years. Can you do anything to help them since decisions about such actions are usually made by corporate executives?

A: We see all those takeovers, corporate mergers and acquisitions, and they are creating enormous fears in the minds of workers, union and non-union alike. When Chase and Chemical banks announced their plans to work toward a merger, they said casually they are going to lay off 12,000 workers. It is no wonder workers are upset. No consideration whatsoever is given to those workers. It is evil. The corporate greed for more and more profits lets the owners ignore the fact that their ever-increasing profits come often because of the increasing productivity of the American work force. The entire country should rise up in protest.

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