From 1995 to 2009, John Joseph Sweeney served as 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.
Born in May 1934 in the Bronx, New York, Sweeney grew up in a union family. His father was a city bus driver; his mother, a maid for wealthy families on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
After graduating from Iona College, Sweeney tried unsuccessfully to get a union job. He worked a year for IBM and then was able to secure employment as a research assistant with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union [ILGWU] in New York in 1957.
In 1960 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 payments 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.
During his 1995 AFL-CIO campaign, Sweeney had a spokesman announce that he would no longer take money from his former local New York union because Sweeney had “decided both the amount of time he was spending with the local and the amount of money he was receiving was inappropriate.” Nonetheless, Sweeney never returned any of the “inappropriate” nearly-half-million dollars he had taken from his former union.
In four terms as SEIU President, Sweeney increased that union’s membership from 625,000 to 1.1 million members.
“The public-sector unions have pushed the entire labor movement to the left. The [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. … The rise of these unions led to the elevation of SEIU’s boss, John Sweeney, to head of the labor federation. 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.”
Sweeney is a card-carrying member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the principal American affiliate of the Socialist International.
Sweeney’s threesome called itself “New Voice,” and ran pledging to repeal 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 in 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 the pro-Big Government Democratic Party.
Sweeney’s 1995 election as AFL-CIO President was in part a reaction to the Republican Party having won control of both houses of Congress in November 1994. Since then Sweeney has diverted hundreds of millions of dollars in union member dues to Democratic Party candidates in an effort to restore power to Democrats who permit the de facto taxation of workers by their unions.
Like his fellow triumvirs, Sweeney favors radical approaches to resuscitate a dying labor movement. One of their first projects after winning the 1995 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.
According to Yates, the apparent agenda of Sweeney, Chavez-Thompson and Trumka is to promote “class-based organizing.” Research, says 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.”
In other words, the “New Voice” leaders promote class warfare, anti-capitalism, big government, and high rates of taxation. 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.”
Sweeney, Trumka and Chavez-Thompson also were quick 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.
In 2005 James Hoffa joined six other union leaders in a group calling itself the Change to Win Coalition, which opposed Sweeney’s reelection. When it became apparent that Sweeney’s reelection was inevitable, Hoffa announced that the Teamsters Union and its 1.4 million members were withdrawing from the AFL-CIO. Joining Hoffa was Andrew Stern, President of the 1.8 million-member SEIU, who announced that this union (which Sweeney had 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 which these two unions had been providing.
Sweeney lashed out at the schismatics Hoffa and Stern, describing their departure as a “tragedy” that benefited “our corporate and conservative adversaries.” 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 retired as AFL-CIO President on September 16, 2009. He was succeeded by Richard Trumka.
He passed away on February 1, 2021.