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John Sweeney and the Power of Unions

By Lowell Ponte
Discover The Networks

John Joseph Sweeney is President of the powerful American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) affiliated with 54 unions whose combined membership is nearly 10 million people.

Sweeney was born in May 1934 in New York City's borough The Bronx.

"Unlike many union leaders of past eras, Sweeney himself didn't begin his career in a dirty-fingernails job," according to a 2004 editorial by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "Rather, he grew up in a union family in New York City. His father was a city bus driver; his mother, a maid for rich families on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Both parents came from Ireland just in time for the Great Depression…."

"The financial security that his father's union job provided allowed Sweeney to attend Iona College, where he majored in economics," the Wharton editorial continued. Sweeney has spoken of attending, as a boy, union meetings with his father. "In [our] home," said Sweeney, "there were three things we valued most - our family, our church and my father's union. We knew that without my father's union there would be no bread on the table." 

Iona College, founded in 1940 by Christian Brothers, is a Roman Catholic college. Sweeney earned money as a student there by working part time as a unionized grave digger.

"Upon graduation," reported Wharton, Sweeney "tried to get a job with a union but failed. He settled for IBM. A year later, he made the switch, becoming a research assistant with the International Ladies Garment Workers [ILGWU] in New York." 

In 1960, three years after joining the Garment Workers Union, Sweeney was hired as a contract director for New York City Local 32B of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), where he worked his way up to President and led two citywide strikes of apartment maintenance workers.

In 1980 Sweeney was elected President of SEIU International. While being paid for this full-time job, he continued to receive paychecks from the New York City local union. These paychecks from his former local, some adding up to $80,000 a year, continued until 1995 when Sweeney's "double-dipping" became an issue in his successful run that year for the presidency of the AFL-CIO. 

In 1994 Sweeney's pay as President of SEIU was $210,952. But as Linda Chavez and Daniel Gray reported in their 2004 book Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics (Crown Forum), Sweeney's double-dipping since he left his New York local to head SEIU International in 1982 had also siphoned "at least $449,642" from his former local union's treasury into Sweeney's pockets.

During his 1995 campaign to take over the AFL-CIO, Sweeney had a spokesman announce that he would no longer take money from his former local New York union because Sweeney "decided both the amount of time he was spending with the local and the amount of money he was receiving was inappropriate." Despite this announcement, Sweeney has never returned a penny of the "inappropriate" nearly-half-million dollars he took from his former union. 

After four terms as SEIU president, Sweeney had increased that union's membership from 625,000 to 1.1 million members.  

SEIU perfectly embodies the values of the New Labor Movement in America. To understand what it is, consider this 1997 analysis by Los Angeles Democrat, longtime fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, activist and author Joel Kotkin: "The public-sector unions have pushed the entire labor movement to the left. The Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, has embraced organizations with a New Left origin, such as ACORN and Cleveland's Nine to Five, and has even set up its own gay and lesbian caucus. 'Most of the radicals who went into labor ended up in the public employee unions,' observes one labor official.

"The rise of these unions led to the elevation of SEIU's boss, John Sweeney, to head of the labor federation," wrote Kotkin. "No George Meaney-style bread-and-butter unionist, Sweeney is an advocate of European-style democratic socialism. He has opened the AFL-CIO to participation by delegates openly linked to the Communist Party, which enthusiastically backed his ascent. The U.S. Communist Party [CPUSA] says it is now 'in complete accord' with the AFL-CIO's program. 'The radical shift in both leadership and policy is a very positive, even historic change,' wrote CPUSA National Chairman Gus Hall in 1996 after the AFL-CIO convention."

"That alone is enough to send shivers down the spines of many labor activists," continued Kotkin. "particularly those old enough to remember the earlier struggles against the totalitarian left. 'All those people we thought we got rid of 40 years ago are back in there,' complains one Detroit area labor lawyer close to the United Auto Workers. 'It's like the 1930s all over again.'"

Some SEIU activists boast that they are the "new CIO," referring to the radical, class warfare Congress of Industrial Organizations before United Auto Worker (UAW) union leader Walter Reuther purged it of its most toxic Communist leaders as a condition of merging with the more moderate, boost-worker-wages-oriented American Federation of Labor to create the AFL-CIO in 1955. Today's SEIU "leaders tend to be radical, even socialist," wrote Ryan Lizza, Associate Editor of the liberal magazine The New Republic in 2003.

Sweeney is a card-carrying member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the principal American affiliate of the Socialist International.

In 1995 Sweeney was the leader of a troika elected to head the AFL-CIO.

The second member of what remains today's ruling triumvirate of the AFL-CIO is Linda Chavez-Thompson, a tough 5'1" Texas radical who had been Executive Vice President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

The third member of Sweeney's ruling triumvirate is Richard Trumka, former President of the United Mine Workers Union, with a history of winking at violence. 

Trumka comes from a blue collar union, but he became a star in the AFL-CIO by developing and promoting radical strategies and tactics like those of the 1960s New Left for signing up workers. These tactics include labor alliances with media, government and radical activists to intimidate companies by threatening a "death of a thousand cuts" that targets a company's investors, public image, relations with government regulators and more. Trumka is more lawyer than laborer, more politician than proletarian, and more in tune with the governmentality than the business mentality.

Sweeney's threesome called itself "New Voice," and ran pledging to replace the policies of moderate AFL-CIO leaders. With government workers now the fastest - indeed, almost the only - growing segment of a shrinking organized labor movement, Sweeney, Trumka and Chavez-Thompson represented a turn away from blue collar industrial unionism and the AFL-CIO's traditional emphasis on raising wages and improving working conditions. That old path had succeeded too well, boosting blue collar union member wages so high that up to 40 percent of these union members began voting Republican and complaining about higher taxes and bigger government. 

Sweeney's "new" unionism, by contrast, focuses on government workers who benefit from higher taxes and bigger government and who therefore implicitly support socialism and America's pro-Big Government Democratic Party. (Government workers can demand higher pay and perks without fear that their jobs will be exported to Mexico or India.) 

In 2005 in the United States, more Americans are employed by government than work in manufacturing. Since Sweeney became head of the AFL-CIO, the proportion of unionized government workers has held more or less steady at around 35 percent. In the total workforce, by contrast, the percentage of union members has fallen from 15 to 12.5 percent, down from a peak of more than 33 percent during the late 1940s. 

In 2005 in the private sector, only 7.9 percent of workers are unionized.  Only one worker in 13 is a union member. And as these numbers decline, so too does union power and political influence.

Political influence created the powers unions wield today. Beginning with Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal," government gave to unions a power akin to taxation. This was the power to require workers to join unions and to pay union dues. A share of those coerced union dues have then used to elect and re-elect Democrats in what has become the biggest money laundering scheme to enrich a political party in history. Without such union money, the Democratic Party would be vastly weaker than it is today. 

Sweeney's 1995 election as AFL-CIO President was in part a reaction to the Republican Party winning control of both houses of Congress in November 1994. Since then Sweeney has diverted hundreds of millions of dollars in coerced union member dues to Democratic Party candidates in a failed effort to restore power to Democrats who permit the de facto taxation of workers by their unions. Sweeney closely tied the future of organized labor to the Democratic Party, whose decline in power since 1994 parallels that of the AFL-CIO.

Like his fellow triumvirs, Sweeney favors radical approaches to resuscitate a dying labor movement. One of their first projects after winning election was "Union Summer," an effort "to recruit and train hundreds of young people as organizers and political activists," wrote University of Pittsburgh Johnstown labor economist Michael Yates. 

The apparent agenda of "New Voice" leaders Sweeney, Chavez-Thompson and Trumka is to promote "class-based organizing." Research, according to Yates, shows that "those unions which mobilize rank-and-file workers around a program of aggressive solidarity and conflict with their employers have the best chance of winning union elections, bargaining good contracts, and resisting decertification." 

Class warfare, in other words, is back in style with this new trio of labor leaders. The capitalist is the enemy. Big government - the bigger, the better - is the ally. Among workers' weapons (echoing what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels proposed in their 1848 Communist Manifesto) are confiscatory taxation and all-pervasive government regulatory control, i.e., the politics of expropriating ever more private wealth and power by the government. As an avowed socialist, Sweeney is ultimately devoted not to coexisting with capitalism but to making capitalism extinct.

The "Union Summer" indoctrination materials use explicit class warfare rhetoric. Young participants are told to recite a pledge called "Working Class Commitment" that includes the Marxist dogma "that we produce the world's wealth, that we belong to the only class with a future, that our class will end all oppression."

For socialists such as Sweeney, the day that government expropriates the means of production will be the utopian dawn of all workers becoming government employees - and hence members of mandatory public employee unions like SEIU and AFSCME.

Unlike their more moderate predecessors, Sweeney and his fellow AFL-CIO bosses see free market capitalism not as essential to worker prosperity but as the enemy in class warfare. "Union Summer" is one way to teach and spread ideological hatred of capitalism, as well as love for "progressive" government, throughout the union movement. Their ultimate aim is not only to boost their members' wages, but also to radically transform society. As Sweeney wrote in his 1996 book America Needs a Raise, they see themselves building not only a labor movement but also a "social movement."

One of the first actions taken by Sweeney, Trumka and Chavez-Thompson was to rescind a founding AFL-CIO rule that banned Communist Party members and loyalists from leadership positions within the Federation and its unions. The "New Voice" triumvirate with open arms welcomed Communist Party delegates to positions of power in the Federation. 

One condition of the AFL-CIO merger of 1955 was that outright Communists be purged from CIO unions. During that de-radicalization, the AFL-CIO in 1957 instituted a rule that required any union AFL-CIO official invoking his Fifth Amendment right to avoid incriminating himself before a congressional committee (as purported Communists had done) to be removed from his position.

But when Richard Trumka twice invoked his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination involving a corruption and money-laundering scandal during the late 1990s connected to the Democratic Party, the response by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was to purge the rule instead of the rule-breaker Trumka. 

This prompted even the New York Times in an Editorial to write: "For the sake of propriety [Trumka] would do the A.F.L.-C.I.O. a favor if he stepped aside while the investigation is under way. Refusing to testify on grounds of self-incrimination may be acceptable in a criminal trial, but it hardly instills confidence in his leadership of the A.F.L.-C.I.O."

This case involved the Teamsters Union, whose President Ron Carey faced likely defeat in his 1996 run for re-election. According to congressional testimony, Carey agreed to raise $1 million for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) if $100,000 could be provided to him immediately to finance his re-election campaign. In this shell game, as witnesses explained it, the Teamsters Union paid $150,000 to the AFL-CIO, the same amount which its Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka immediately thereafter gave from AFL-CIO accounts to the leftwing political group Citizen Action, which within days provided $100,000 to the Carey campaign.

Carey was forced out of power at the Teamsters Union amid scandal. He was replaced by the election of James Hoffa, Jr., son of the controversial former Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, whose popular rise to Teamster leadership Sweeney and Trumka had contrived to prevent.

In 2005 James Hoffa joined six other union leaders in a group that calls itself the Change to Win Coalition. This coalition opposed John Sweeney's reelection at the AFL-CIO's 50th Anniversary Convention in July 2005 in Chicago. With Sweeney's reelection inevitable and the coalition's proposed reforms compromised, Hoffa on the first day of this convention announced that the Teamsters Union and its 1.4 million members were withdrawing from the AFL-CIO.

At Hoffa's side was Andrew Stern, President of the 1.8 million member SEIU, who announced that this union Sweeney once headed was also withdrawing from the AFL-CIO. The departure of these two large unions shrank the number of union members represented by AFL-CIO unions by nearly 25 percent, from 13 million members to fewer than 10 million. Their departure also meant that AFL-CIO revenues were suddenly smaller by at least the $18-20 million per year these two unions - among the largest and fastest growing in organized labor - had been providing.

Two other members of the Change to Win Coalition, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and the textile and hotel/restaurant employee union UNITE HERE, boycotted the July 2005 convention. 

If all seven Change to Win Coalition members quit the AFL-CIO, the federation's membership would plunge by nearly 40 percent.

Sweeney lashed out at the schismatics Hoffa and Stern in his convention speech, describing their departure as a "tragedy" that benefited "our corporate and conservative adversaries."

Part of Sweeney's bitterness came from the fact that he had hired and promoted Andy Stern to guide the confrontational strategy and tactics of SEIU. Stern, a 1960s anti-war radical, had persuaded the older Sweeney to lead worker protests that got results by shutting down streets and bridges in Washington, D.C. Stern had won concessions with similar city-stopping street protests in Los Angeles and elsewhere as part of the SEIU "Justice for Janitors" campaign he planned. In 2005 the young egotist Sweeney had empowered was using similar rule-or-ruin tactics in a campaign to undermine and depose him. 

At the July 2005 AFL-CIO convention, Sweeney agreed to divert more than $37 million in federation funds away from mostly-Democratic Party support and into efforts to recruit and organize more union members. Sweeney was expected to win reelection to a new term, but many viewed his triumph as a Pyrrhic victory likely to prompt more member union departures and to accelerate the AFL-CIO's already-steep decline. 

Labor leader John J. Sweeney should not be confused with Congressman John E. Sweeney, a Republican who represents the 20th District of New York covering Poughkeepsie to Lake Placid along the Hudson River Valley.

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