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This Day in Labor History: October 23, 1995

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On October 23, 1995, John Sweeney won the election to become president of the AFL-CIO. This ground shifting event began the process of moving the federation away from its staid Cold War policies and unwillingness to organize workers and attempted to make it once again a fighting force for the nation’s working people. The success of Sweeney’s reign was certainly mixed, but it was a whole lot better than that of his predecessor Lane Kirkland.

It’s hard to express enough contempt for the AFL-CIO in the forty years after the 1955 merger to Sweeney’s victory in 1995. In that time, there were only two heads of the federation: George Meany and Lane Kirkland. Both were fully committed to a post-organizing model of unionism that protected gains for the workers who had union contracts, lobbied Washington to pass legislation to help workers, having chummy relationships with employers to ensure the smooth running of the union-centric economy, and serving as a close ally with the U.S. government in fighting the Cold War. This turned out to be a complete disaster on all fronts. Meany and Kirkland and many other union leaders truly believed that the fighting days of the past were over and that they were genuinely accepted members of American economic planning. So when the new era of unionbusting began in the 1980s, these older men were caught completely flat-footed and never had a good response. The Cold War unionism of Meany especially lead to all sorts of atrocities in which labor was complicit, largely through funding corrupt and right-wing unions in developing world nations that the CIA could use as pawns to fight their dirty wars and support their coups. They often showed contempt for non-union workers instead of putting in the resources to organize them.

John Sweeney did not come from the rank-and-file. Like most recent union leaders, he was a college graduate (Iona) who decided on unions as a career. He started with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union as a researcher in 1956. He became an acolyte of Tom Donahue, who was working for what became the Service Employees International Union. Sweeney to moved to SEIU (BSEIU at that time) and eventually rose in the union to head what became known through a series of mergers as the unfortunately named Local 32BJ, which is today one of the most powerful parts of that huge union. He became president of SEIU in 1980 and served there for 15 years. That included presiding over the important Justice for Janitors campaign that brought a new form of unionism for a new day of immigrant workers and grassroots actions that were centrally planned by union staffers. Some have criticized that movement because it ran roughshod over recalcitrant locals but I have trouble accepting as serious a criticism of an international taking over locals that refuse to organize and instead protect entrenched power, especially as so many of those SEIU-haters (BIG EVIL PURPLE!) say the problem with the union movement is not enough organizing except when SEIU does it and they are doing it wrong. This embarrassing piece is the apotheosis of this ridiculousness–how dare SEIU fund workers fighting for a higher wage! Here’s some unnamed sources to complain about it! Anyway, I digress. During Sweeney’s tenure, SEIU doubled in size at a time when union membership was collapsing. Sweeney’s SEIU made immigrant and low-wage service work organizing a priority for the labor movement.

By 1995, the rapidly declining state of the labor movement had led to significant internal dissent, especially from the unions that were organizing and especially those organizing people of color and low-income workers. In 1995, disgust over Lane Kirkland’s lack of leadership finally bubbled to the top. The final straw was having no plan to counter the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 or what to do in the aftermath of NAFTA’s passage. The union movement was dying and Kirkland had no answer. The Committee for Change formed that included a wide variety of unions. SEIU and Sweeney helped lead this and it also included as AFSCME, UAW, USWA, and the Teamsters. They decided to force Kirkland out. In short, it was basically the building trades minus the Carpenters for Kirkland and everyone else for getting rid of him, which had never happened in the history of the American labor movement. And while the building trades hold a ridiculous amount of power in the labor movement for their actual numbers, in the rare times the rest of the labor movement is actually united, they can act to move in a more progressive manner. Kirkland refused to resign and the Committee for Change hoped to run Sweeney’s mentor Tom Donahue against him. But Donahue did not want to run against the man he had worked for over the last 16 years. So the Committee decided to run Sweeney instead. He was considered amiable and an innovator.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Kirkland finally did decide not to run. But then Donahue decided to run on Kirkland’s slate. Now called the New Voice, these unions rallied around Sweeney. AFSCME VP Linda Chavez-Thompson, the first woman and the first person of Latin American descent to run for high AFL-CIO office ran as Vice-President (one assumes Sam Gompers rolled over in his grave), which is a relatively titular role in the AFL-CIO. United Mine Workers of America president Richard Trumka, known for his leadership at the 1989 Pittston strike, was Secretary-Treasurer and the likely heir apparent whenever Sweeney left. This became the extremely rare public debate over the future of the American labor movement. Both sides hired expensive campaign firms and spent a lot of money. The New Voice won out and Sweeney became president.

The Sweeney years did not save labor. He promoted more organizing, created the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute and Union Summer for young activists, turned away from the Cold War past, embraced immigrants, and lobbied to push politics in a more progressive direction. But given that the AFL-CIO head is not actually that powerful and he faced a lot of backwards-looking unions, his ability to make real change was limited. It certainly wasn’t enough to counter the massive right-wing campaigns that have continue to devastate American unionism. Maybe even more organizing would have made the difference and there were left-critiques of the Sweeney era that made that point. I don’t know. It might have just been too late. In any case, without Sweeney’s takeover, the union movement would be in even worse shape today. The ridiculous split from Sweeney’s egocentric successor at SEIU, Andy Stern, to create Change to Win as an alternative union federation certainly did not help. This pulled over 3 million members from the AFL-CIO to accomplish precisely nothing. I will save hating on Stern for a later post in this series.

Sweeney retired from the presidency in 2009. Richard Trumka took over and he still leads the federation today. In fact, he was elected to a third term just yesterday, despite a lot of credible rumors that American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten would run against him with the promise that the public sector unions would pay off the federation’s substantial debt in exchange for control. It’s possible that the upcoming evisceration of public sector unions by the Supreme Court in the Janus v. AFSCME case ended that possibility, but I don’t know.

This is the 246th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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