John Sweeney, who led an era of transformative change in America's labor movement, passed away February 1 at the age of 86. Sweeney was one of four children born to Irish immigrants in a working-class Bronx neighborhood shortly after the Great Depression. His parents, James and Agnes Sweeney, worked as a bus driver and a domestic worker, respectively. Sweeney always understood the struggles and the pride of working people.
As a young man, Sweeney held jobs as a grave-digger and building porter while studying economics at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, where he joined a union for the first time.
Driven by his Catholic faith and commitment to solidarity, Sweeney took a position as a researcher with the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, a predecessor to UNITE HERE. It was during this time that Sweeney was connected with the Building Service Employees International Union, known today as the Service Employees International Union or SEIU. Sweeney worked his way up the ranks of Local 32B, winning election as president in 1976. He merged 32B, the union for male janitors, with 32J, the union of female janitors, in 1977, forming the powerful Local 32BJ, which now represents hundreds of thousands of building service workers throughout the East Coast. The men had the job of heavy cleaner and washed and waxed the office building hallways and lobby, while the women were designated light cleaners and dusted the offices and emptied the trash. He often noted that if a glass wall separated an office from a hallway, the men cleaned the outside and the women cleaned the inside. The men were paid more. The merger, led by Sweeney, got them a unified contract. As president of 32BJ, Sweeney led several successful citywide strikes, winning better wages, benefits and other contract improvements. This led to his election as SEIU international president in 1980.
Sweeney transformed SEIU, dedicating one-third of the union's budget to new worker organizing and doubling its membership over the next decade. He focused on winning new collective bargaining for low-wage workers and was a champion for immigrant rights. He spearheaded the Justice for Janitors campaign of mass civil disobedience in Los Angeles that brought dignity and voice to caretakers and cleaners across the United States and Canada, an effort that set the tone for worker organizing and economic justice for decades to come. He also led high-profile mergers with 1199 and other public employee unions, growing SEIU's size and strength.
In 1995, Sweeney led an insurgent campaign to capture the presidency of America's labor federation, the AFL-CIO. Running on a New Voice ticket with United Mine Workers of America President Richard Trumka, who leads the AFL-CIO today, and AFSCME International Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson, in the newly created position of executive vice president, paving the way for the first person of color in the federation's highest ranks, Sweeney was swept into office on a promise of bold change and a recommitment to worker organizing.
Sweeney was a member of the Maritime Trades Department Executive Board while president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) from 1984 until his election to lead the AFL-CIO in 1995. He addressed MTD conventions in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2005 and 2009.
John Sweeney retired from the AFL-CIO in 2009 as president after nearly 60 years in the labor movement.
President Joe Biden
I had the honor and privilege of working closely with John Sweeney during his leadership of the AFL-CIO. Time and again over the many years of our friendship, I saw how lifting up the rights, voices, and dignity of working Americans was more than a job to him. It was a sacred mission. It was a calling.
The son of a maid and a bus driver from Ireland, John grew up attending union meetings alongside his father. By the time he punched his own union card, America's faith in unions was too often undermined. But John's own faith in God sustained him with a value set and the conviction - to never lose sight of the truth that the middle class built America, and that unions built the middle class.
The work he led, from the factory floors of the garment workers early in his career to the highest corridors of power as a national labor leader, embodied the vital role that unions play in delivering greater wages and benefits for working people - union and nonunion alike. With every legislative push and tough labor negotiation, he understood the possibilities of our nation when everyday Americans who do extraordinary things are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Jill and I count ourselves among the millions of Americans who will always be grateful for the progress John won, the example he set, and the legacy he has left to our nation. Our prayers are with John's wife, Maureen, with their children, Trish and John Jr., and with his granddaughter, Kennedy.
May God bless John Sweeney, a giant of the American labor movement, and a good man.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka
John Sweeney was a legend, plain and simple. He was guided into unionism by his Catholic faith, and not a single day passed by when he didn't put the needs of working people first. John viewed his leadership as a spiritual calling, a divine act of solidarity in a world plagued by distance and division. The son of Irish immigrants, he used work as a way to directly apply his values, consistently exhibiting grit over flash and pursuing progress instead of posturing. He built SEIU into a powerhouse, doubling its membership, earning respect across the labor movement and in the halls of power. Throughout his storied life, John used the lessons he learned as a ground-level union leader to uphold dignity for all working people and expand human rights worldwide.
I was proud to join his insurgent ticket in 1995, which recommitted the AFL-CIO to worker organizing and collective power. As president, John was a great leader and true innovator, driving the labor movement forward. We stand on that foundation today as we take on the challenges of inequality, systemic racism and much more. Former President Bill Clinton called John "a force for inclusion and activism." I was blessed to call him a brother, a mentor and a friend. May God bless John's memory, his family and the labor movement to which he devoted his life.
Maritime Trades Department President Michael Sacco
John was very dedicated to improving the lives of working people. He came from a humble background and rose to the top of the Labor Movement. But he never, never forgot where he came from.
John was right at home on a shop floor, in a union meeting or at the White House. His priority always was the workers and their families. We both came up through the ranks - in tough times and good. He was always the same person and a great leader. We shall miss him deeply.
We extend our love and best wishes to his wife, Maureen, and his whole family.