* Former president of the AFL-CIO
* Member of Democratic Socialists of America
* Former president of the Service Employees International Union
* Repealed an AFL-CIO rule prohibiting Communists from being leaders of its member unions
* Instituted “Union Summer” program to radicalize union activists and inculcate class warfare ideas and tactics
* Died on February 1, 2021
John Joseph Sweeney was born to Irish-Catholic immigrant parents on May 5, 1934 in the Bronx, New York and 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 with a degree in economics, Sweeney tried unsuccessfully to get a union job. So he worked a year as a clerk for IBM and then, in 1957, was able to secure employment in New York as a research assistant with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union [ILGWU], which later merged with the Clothing and Textile Workers Union.
In 1961, Sweeney was hired as a union representative for the Service Employees International Union‘s (SEIU) Local 32B in New York City. He was subsequently elected as an executive board member of Local 32B in 1972; vice president of Local 32B in 1973; and president of Local 32B in 1976.
Also during his tenure with Local 32B, Sweeney led two citywide strikes of apartment maintenance workers in the 1970s.
In 1980, Sweeney was elected president of the international SEIU, a post he would hold for the next 15 years. During his four terms as president, Sweeney redirected roughly 30 percent of the union’s expenditures toward the recruitment of new members — a move that helped increase SEIU’s membership from 625,000 to 1.1 million.
While being paid for this full-time job with the international SEIU, Sweeney continued to receive paychecks from his former union, the New York City-based Local 32B. These Local 32B payments, which in some cases amounted to $80,000 per year, would continue until 1995, at which time Sweeney’s “double-dipping” became an issue as he ran for the presidency of the powerful AFL-CIO.
In 1982, Sweeney was invited to speak at a Democratic Agenda Conference which was held in Newark, New Jersey and was initiated by the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), an entity led by Michael Harrington, founder of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Sweeney himself was a member of DSA, the principal American affiliate of the Socialist International.
During his campaign, Sweeney had a spokesman announce that he (Sweeney) would no longer take payments from the New York City-based SEIU Local 32 because he had “decided [that] 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 nearly-half-million “inappropriate” dollars he had accepted from his former union.
Also while running for AFL-CIO president, Sweeney worked closely with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in picketing the Columbus, Ohio office of U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, a Republican.
According to the Capital Research Center: “When he made his successful bid for AFL-CIO president in 1995, Sweeney left a legacy of increasing SEIU political activism and an association with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. He consistently advocated for mandatory paid family leave and raising the federal minimum wage.”
With Sweeney’s ascension to president of the AFL-CIO, the union federation was now dominated by a new ruling troika: Sweeney, Trumka, and Chavez-Thompson.
Upon taking the reins of the AFL-CIO, Sweeney and his union federation formed close alliances with such entities as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the National Organization for Women, Michael Lerner‘s Summit on Ethics and Meaning, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Natural Law Party, the Rainbow Coalition, and Voters for Choice.
Sweeney, Trumka and Chavez-Thompson were quick to rescind a founding AFL-CIO rule that theretofore had banned Communist Party members and loyalists from leadership positions within the Federation and its unions. Indeed, the triumvirate welcomed with open arms Communist Party delegates to positions of power in the Federation. As David Horowitz and Richard Poe write in their 2006 book, Shadow Party: “Sweeney opened the AFL-CIO’s door to Communist Party organizers for the first time since the 1950s, allowing Communists to distribute literature at his conventions and recruit workers to their cause.”
Calling themselves the “New Voice” of the labor movement, the Sweeney/Trumka/Chavez-Thompson threesome pledged to: (a) repeal the policies of moderate AFL-CIO leaders, and (b) “challenge the right-wing domination of the media in politics.”
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 such union members began voting Republican and complaining about higher taxes and bigger government. Sweeney’s “new” unionism, by contrast, focused on the needs of government workers who benefited from higher taxes and bigger government, and who therefore implicitly supported socialism and the pro-Big Government Democratic Party.
Noting that the obvious goal of Sweeney, Trumka, and Chavez-Thompson was to promote “class-based organizing,” University of Pittsburgh labor economist Michael Yates claimed 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 promoted class warfare, anti-capitalism, big government, and high rates of taxation. As an avowed socialist, Sweeney was ultimately devoted not to coexisting with capitalism, but to making capitalism extinct.
In October 1996, The Washington Examiner‘s Matt Labash noted the enormous sums of money that the New Voice initiative had injected into the congressional campaigns of House Democrats nationwide:
“The hallmark of Sweeney’s ‘New Voice’ platform is his $35 million ‘voter-education’ campaign. He called for a special convention last March — the first of its kind since the AFL and the CIO merged — at which a rubber-stamp vote plucked the $35 mil out of membership dues (whether the members objected or not). The money has since been used to wage war on Republicans, though in the guise of ‘issue advocacy,’ as the Federal Election Commission forbids such organizations to campaign for specific candidates. Sweeney’s ‘voter education’ has consisted primarily of attack ads against 75 Republican incumbents and the placement of ground troops in districts where the GOP is considered vulnerable. […]
“The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the average House loser in 1994 spent $ 238,715. Sweeney’s $35 million when allotted 75 ways comes out to $466,000 per Democratic challenger, which frees up those candidates’ own war chests for other expenses. And this is not taking into account labor’s estimated $300 million – $500 million in unreported in-kind expenditures. […]
“‘Our goal is to educate our members to judge candidates by their positions on the issues, not by whether they are Democrats or Republicans,’ [says Sweeney]. Strange, then, that he is sending out a million pieces of political mail against Republicans, followed up by a half-million phone calls; that his old union, the SEIU, is shutting down for two weeks to send ‘volunteers’ to get out the vote; and that he held a secret ‘candidate seminar’ in July exclusively for Democrats, afterward refusing to release a list of attendees to the Chicago Tribune, which had discovered the meeting. Not a single Democrat has been targeted by his ‘issue advocacy’ […] And most of Sweeney’s TV spots have been produced by Frank Greer, chief of the official ad agency for Clinton/Gore ’92.
“Some of the ads disingenuously scare voters into thinking that Republicans are out to destroy Medicare. The Republican National Committee has squawked so loudly about this and other distortions that at least 24 stations have refused to run the ads or have pulled them, in some cases offering free response time. Even CNN labeled the spots ‘dishonest.'”
Like his fellow triumvirs, Sweeney favored the use of 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 to serve as organizers and political activists.
Union Summer’s indoctrination materials used explicit class-warfare rhetoric. For instance, young participants were required to recite “Working Class Commitment,” a pledge articulating Marxist dogma about working-class solidarity:
“I solemnly promise that from this moment on, I will take pride in the intelligence, strength, endurance, and goodness of working-class people everywhere.
“I will remember to be proud that we do the world’s work, that we produce the world’s wealth, that we belong to the only class with a future, that our class will end all oppression.
“I will unite with my fellow workers everywhere around the world to lead all people to a rational, peaceful society.
“I am a worker, proud to be a worker, and the future is in my hands.”
In a December 6, 1995 speech, Sweeney, who had recently visited France with President Bill Clinton, articulated his high regard for the French Communist-backed General Confederation of Labor and its iron-fisted control of France’s public-sector agencies: “I was in Europe last week, traveling with President Clinton, and I couldn’t help but be impressed with what is going on in France. In this country [America], when we’re faced with cuts in vital services that benefit workers and the poor, we shut down a few parts of the government. In France, the workers shut down the country — even though only 8 percent of the work force is organized!”
Sweeney was the featured speaker at an April 1996 “Summit on Ethics and Meaning” dinner organized by Michael Lerner and convened by such organizations as People For the American Way, the Utne Reader, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the Clergy Advisory Board of Planned Parenthood of America. The conference aimed to draw attention to “the deprivation of meaning in daily life and how our hunger for meaning is used and manipulated by racist, xenophobic, nationalist, fascist and fundamentalist religious groups in ways that set people against each other.” In the course of his speech, Sweeney lauded the attendees for their commitment to being part of the “core of a progressive coalition that will expand the frontiers of social justice.”
In 1996 as well, Sweeney said it was a “sad day” when President Clinton had signed the recently enacted welfare reform bill, which the AFL-CIO leader described as “anti-poor, anti-immigrants, anti-women and anti-children.”
Contrary to Sweeney’s characterization, however, a 2016 report by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation pointed out the great extent to which the 1996 welfare reform bill had yielded positive results for its intended beneficiaries:
“The 1996 reform law replaced the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) welfare program with a new program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). For the first time, a portion of recipients were required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving aid. This work requirement led to the historically unprecedented drop in welfare caseloads shown in Chart 1.
“Reform was based on the premise that prolonged welfare dependence was harmful to recipients and society. Reformers believed that imposing work requirements on benefits would cause families to rely less on traditional welfare and more on formal employment, informal employment, and support from relatives. It was also anticipated that reform would lead to decreased non-marital childbearing and greater support from non-married fathers and boyfriends, including increased cohabitation and marriage. In general, the reform met these expectations.”
“Sweeney and the rest of the new AFL-CIO leadership have even been praised by the Communist Party, U.S.A., a virulent critic of the federation under [former AFL-CIO president] George Meany’s leadership [from 1955-1979]. ‘Headed by President John Sweeney,’ writes CPUSA National Chairman Gus Hall, ‘the new leadership is also involved in a process of radicalization and militancy that is already evident in the activities and commitment of resources in the election campaign, organizing the unorganized and the campaign to win a higher minimum wage.’ Reflecting on various speeches at the AFL-CIO convention (including Sweeney’s), Hall wrote that ‘The radical shift in both leadership and policy is a very positive, even historic change. We do not want to take any credit for the shift, but our Party has advocated class struggle policies throughout its 75 years.'”
“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.”
In 1997 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Sweeney was the honoree at the annual Eugene Debs Award Banquet, an event named for the founder of the Socialist Party of America.
In May 2000, Sweeney was elected president of the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC), whose affiliates represented scores of millions of workers and several dozen national trade union centers in the 29 countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
In the early 2000s, Sweeney opposed the Bush administration’s proposal for oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In June 2002, the Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch published an analysis of the tough and ruthless tactics that Sweeney brought to organized labor. Some noteworthy excerpts:
“Under John Sweeney, […] SEIU returned to its roots of organizing low wage and unskilled workers. And he had a new weapon to increase the union’s membership: corporate campaigns. Corporate campaigns are coordinated assaults on a company’s reputation. The union goes outside ordinary procedures for seeking representation or pressing its grievances. Instead, it mounts a full-scale political and public relations campaign, often enlisting other social and religious groups as allies and threatening the employer with an economic boycott. The implicit threat: We unionize your workforce, or we destroy your reputation. […]
“The tactics of the corporate campaign did not originate with labor unions. They go back to the 1960s activist group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other ‘New Left‘ organizations of the era. Unlike the ‘Old Left’ of the 1930s, whose heart was the labor movement, the New Left was based in the universities and it developed a sociological critique of America. […]
“Unions began adopting the SDS strategy in the 1970s. SEIU staged its first official corporate campaign against the nursing home chain Beverly Enterprises in 1983. The campaign never officially ended. SEIU got very little of what it was seeking—but the union learned many lessons about using corporate campaigns that it’s been refining ever since.
“Sweeney brought these experiences to the AFL-CIO. In his  book The Death of A Thousand Cuts, [Jarol] Manheim notes that Sweeney’s ‘personal commitment to the corporate campaign approach to labor-management relations would later set the direction for the entire labor movement.” In 1988, the union published one of the first guidebooks for conducting a corporate campaign, Contract Campaign Manual [written by Sweeney himself]. An introductory chapter states: ‘Instead of relying only on old-style strikes, many locals have surprised employers with a combination of actions such as work site actions; jeopardizing the employer’s relations with customers, investors, politicians or other sources of funds; rolling or selective strikes; legal or regulatory challenges to the way the employer conducts its operations; media campaigns and community pressure based on the common interests of workers and the general public.’
“The union’s first goal should be to define and capture the moral high ground and win public sympathy. Its tactics take many forms: feeding news to the media alleging company wrongdoing, sending letters to stockholders deriding management and the company’s financial health, complaining to regulatory agencies, and good old-fashioned leafleting and picketing.
“In corporate campaigns, unions enlist supportive third parties to attack the company. Environmental, consumer, religious and human rights groups […] are either union allies or they see advantages for themselves in allying with the union. Their image as nonprofit ‘public interest’ advocates obscures union self-interest, and helps unions seize the moral high ground against employers.”
In 2005, International Brotherhood of Teamsters president James Hoffa joined several other union leaders in a group calling itself the Change to Win Coalition, which opposed Sweeney’s reelection as AFL-CIO president. But 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 his union (which Sweeney had once headed) was also leaving the AFL-CIO.
The departure of these two large unions shrank the number of members represented by AFL-CIO unions from 13 million to fewer than 10 million, and decreased the AFL-CIO’s revenues by at least the $18-20 million per year that the two departed unions had been providing.
Sweeney lashed out at the schismatics Hoffa and Stern, describing their departure as “a grievous insult to all the unions” and a “tragedy for working people … at a time when our corporate and conservative adversaries have created the most powerful anti-worker political machine in the history of our country.”
In February 2006, Sweeney announced that the AFL-CIO was pushing for the replication of Maryland’s Fair Share Health Fund Act in 33 additional states. Originally devised by the SEIU as part of its quest to unionize the workers of Wal-Mart, such Fair Share legislation would require employers with 10,000 or more workers in any given state to spend at least 8 percent of payroll on health benefits for those employees — or pay the difference in the form of a tax. But a Heritage Foundation analysis exposed some key flaws in the Fair Share agenda:
“Fair Share is nothing more than symbolic politics. The unions want legislators nationwide to replicate this futile and stupid gesture in lieu of serious health reform. It’s an opportunity they should decline.
“To start with, if employers are forced to pay more for health insurance, they’ll adjust cash wages to keep overall compensation costs from rising. Future raises likely will be smaller, with money that would otherwise go into worker paychecks diverted to health insurance instead. That’s effectively a hidden payroll tax, and taxing workers to pay for their own coverage doesn’t make them better off.
“But Fair Share is actually so ineffectual that it may not even come to that. Non-compliant employers must pay the new tax or face a $250,000 fine. You can bet employers will pick the cheaper option.
“Furthermore, nothing in the law requires employers to cover their uninsured workers. A firm can simply spend more on health benefits for its already-insured workers and achieve full compliance.
“Finally, any new taxes or fines a state may eventually collect are simply dumped into its Medicaid program. Nothing in the legislation requires a state to use those funds to cover more of the uninsured.
“In offering no prospects for extending coverage to even a single uninsured individual, Fair Share attains near perfect futility. Only a cynical genius could devise a tax-and-spend policy so utterly devoid of measurable effects.
“The fraud and hypocrisy of the whole exercise becomes even clearer when one considers that the bill exempts state and local governments. According to Census Bureau data, Maryland’s state and local governments have 20,000 uninsured workers. That collection of uninsured government employees is larger than the entire workforce of any single private employer in the state. The same is likely the case in many other states.”
Sweeney retired as AFL-CIO president on September 16, 2009, and was succeeded by Richard Trumka.
Sweeney died on February 1, 2021, at his home in Bethesda, Maryland.
In 1987, Sweeney co-edited the UNA-USA Economic Policy Council book, Family and Work: Bridging the Gap.
In 1989, he co-authored Solutions for the New Work Force.
In 1996, he authored America Needs A Raise: Fighting for Economic Security and Social Justice.
From Meany to Sweeney: Labor’s Leftward Tilt
by Kenneth Weinstein and August Stofferahn
October 4, 1996