News & Events

At a crucial juncture, union leader is retiring

Sweeney exiting amid new optimism

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times  |  September 8, 2009

LOS ANGELES – 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, who rose to the pinnacle of US unionism from his roots as a son of immigrants, is stepping down this month as president of the AFL-CIO.

The labor movement remains deeply divided, its ranks thinned, its top legislative goals unrealized and unemployment nearing 10 percent, the highest in more than a quarter of a century. Yet Sweeney departs amid organized labor’s best prospects in years.

“It’s a good time for me to wind down,’’ said Sweeney, 75, his low-key, parish-priest demeanor belying a militant commitment to labor, during a recent stopover in Los Angeles. “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. In contrast, during the Bush administration, he was invited 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,’’ Vice President Joe Biden said.

Sweeney’s likely successor is an ally, Richard L. Trumka, 60, the former United Mine Workers president and the current number two at the AFL-CIO, whose 56 affiliated unions represent roughly 9 million workers.

Trumka, a lawyer, is widely expected to carry on Sweeney’s strategies, although he probably will assume a higher public profile than Sweeney, never a noted orator.

Sweeney’s departure comes at a crucial juncture. Labor is seeking to reverse a decadeslong decline that has seen the percentage of the nation’s workforce that is unionized plummet almost 50 percent since the mid-1970s, to about 12.5 percent.

Despite the bleak scenario, last year’s national elections and a recent uptick in union representation 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.

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.

Sweeney also has helped to reverse much of organized labor’s traditional antagonism toward immigrants, long viewed as a hard-to-organize bloc that drove down wages.

Labor’s top legislative priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would ease the way for union organization, faces an uncertain future. Business has mounted a massive 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 US 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.’’

For all his diplomatic skills, Sweeney was unable to prevent several major unions – including the Service Employees International Union, which Sweeney headed for 15 years – from leaving the AFL-CIO in 2005 and forming the Change to Win coalition.

The desertion remains a grave blow for the veteran union man. Talks on reunification have begun, but the prospects are murky.

The outgoing AFL-CIO chief first gained union awareness as a youth, listening to Michael Quill, the pugnacious leader of New York transit workers, in meetings attended alongside his father, a city bus driver.

He worked his way up the union ranks, leading two citywide strikes of 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 Harvard University fellowship awaits him. But Sweeney said 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.’’