He came to power as an insurgent vowing to shake up the stodgy House of Labor that was the AFL-CIO.
Fourteen years later, John J. Sweeney, an immigrants’ son who rose to the pinnacle of U.S. unionism, is stepping down this month as president of the AFL-CIO.
The labor movement remains deeply divided, its ranks greatly thinned, its top legislative goals unrealized and unemployment nearing 10%, the highest in more than a quarter of a century. Yet Sweeney, 75, departs as organized labor faces its best prospects in years.
“It’s a good time for me to wind down,” said Sweeney, his low-key, parish-priest demeanor belying a militant commitment to labor. “It’s time for a change.”
The election of a pro-labor president and the Democratic takeover of Congress -- both achieved with strong union backing -- have provided a propitious moment for Sweeney to exit center stage in the movement that has been his life for more than half a century. Rebuilding the middle class through union membership, labor’s longtime mantra, now has the presidential imprimatur.
These days, Sweeney is a frequent guest at the Obama White House. By contrast, during the Bush administration, he was invited only once in eight years -- and that was at the Vatican’s initiative, during a papal visit.
“At least Sweeney won’t need divine intervention to get into the White House,” quipped Vice President Joe Biden.
Sweeney’s likely successor is a close ally, Richard L. Trumka, 60, the former United Mine Workers president and the current No. 2 at the AFL-CIO, whose 56 affiliated unions represent roughly 9 million workers.
Trumka is widely expected to carry on Sweeney’s strategies, although the trained lawyer will probably assume a higher public profile than Sweeney, never a noted orator. Sweeney’s departure comes at a crucial juncture. Labor is desperately seeking to reverse a decades-long decline that has seen the percentage of the nation’s workforce that is unionized plummet almost 50% since the mid-1970s to about 12.5% today, experts said.
Despite the bleak scenario, last year’s national elections and a recent uptick in union representation -- especially in California -- have provided cause for optimism.
“He’s stepping down with labor on the rebound, in a way that hasn’t been the case of predecessors in previous transitions,” said Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University.
Indeed, Sweeney came to power in 1995, at a time of bruising turmoil.
He led a dissident ouster of Lane Kirkland, who had carried on the Cold War-tinged leadership of his steely predecessor, George Meany. Sweeney’s New Voice slate pledged to transform what many viewed as a moribund federation alienated from contemporary working America and its fast-shifting economics and demographics.
“Sweeney repositioned labor as best he could, and with considerable success, at the center of American liberalism,” said Harold Meyerson, editor at large of the American Prospect, a liberal monthly in Washington, D.C., and an occasional contributor to the Los Angeles Times.
Many credit Sweeney with reinvigorating union-organizing efforts, ratcheting up the federation’s grass-roots political operation and reaching out beyond its traditional white male base.
“He has left a legacy of modernizing the AFL-CIO and bringing in new workers who historically weren’t very central to it, including women, immigrants and more generally people of color,” said Ruth Milkman, a labor expert at UCLA. “And he put organizing back on the center stage.”
Sweeney helped reverse much of organized labor’s traditional antagonism toward immigrants, long viewed as a hard-to-organize bloc that drove down wages.
It was fitting, then, that Sweeney, the Bronx-born son of working-class Irish immigrants, ventured to a blazing Hollywood street corner last month to express solidarity with struggling carwash employees engaged in a bitter organizing battle. Afterward, he bantered with the carwasheros and their allies.
But the long battle ahead for those who toil in L.A.'s carwashes only mirrors the barriers that face the labor movement, however invigorated it may be.
Labor’s No. 1 legislative priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would ease the way for union organization, faces an uncertain future. Business has mounted a massive, costly campaign to derail the measure, labeling it a power grab by “labor bosses,” Sweeney prominent among them.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Sweeney had a tendency all these years to vilify today’s employers in a way more consistent with the 1930s than the modern-day workplace,” said Randel Johnson, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “That hard rhetoric made it difficult for us to work together on anything. . . . I think that accounts for more defeats for labor than victories.”
The future of healthcare reform, another labor priority, is also in doubt.
Internally, labor must also grapple with the acrimonious legacy of yawning schisms arising from both policy and personality -- chasms that have not narrowed despite the pro-labor ascendancy in Washington.
For all his diplomatic skills, Sweeney was unable to prevent several major unions -- including the dynamic Service Employees International Union, which Sweeney headed for 15 years -- from bolting from the AFL-CIO in 2005 and forming the rival Change to Win coalition. It was a massive setback for the federation.
The chief insurgent was Sweeney’s former protege, Andrew Stern, the hard-charging SEIU president, whose brash style is a sharp contrast to Sweeney’s amiable demeanor.
The rebels’ action signaled their conviction that AFL-CIO leadership wasn’t moving quickly enough to restore labor’s sagging influence in the workplace and the halls of power.
“This was about strategies, not personalities,” said Anna Burger, first chair of Change to Win, who managed Sweeney’s 1995 campaign to shake up the AFL-CIO.
The Change to Win desertion remains a grave blow for the veteran union man.
“The labor movement, to be stronger, should be unified,” Sweeney said.
Talks on reunification have begun, but the prospects are murky.
The outgoing AFL-CIO chief first gained union awareness as a youth, listening to the fiery Michael Quill, the pugnacious leader of New York City transit workers, in meetings attended alongside his father, a city bus driver.
“I knew from my earliest days that my father had the protection of the union,” Sweeney recalled, adding that his mother, a domestic worker, lacked such security.
He worked his way up the union ranks, leading two citywide strikes by New York maintenance workers in the 1970s before taking the helm of the SEIU and eventually spearheading the 1995 AFL-CIO shake-up.
Today, a fellowship from Harvard awaits him. But Sweeney, steeped in Catholic social justice teachings, eschews the prospect of donnish retirement and says he plans to keep on dedicating his time to worker issues.
“I have been part of a historic change in the labor movement in our country,” he declared. “And I’m proud of the AFL-CIO and its role in fighting for justice for working people.”