Thanking John Sweeney

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sweeneyWashington There are few grace notes in the current divisions within the forces of institutional labor, but I happened to experience a small one at Georgetown University in a special ceremony held to honor John Sweeney, retiring President of the AFL-CIO, with an honorary degree.  I had been invited by Joe McCartin, an organizer with Houston ACORN decades ago as a Jesuit Volunteer Corps member, and Jennifer Luff, who worked as a researcher for me in the HOTROC campaign in New Orleans.  Joe is now a professor at Georgetown specializing in labor history and Jennifer just signed on with him to help put the Kalmanovitz Institute for Labor and the Working Poor together, where he is also acting as director.   The Georgetown Labor Center, as another organizer called it, as we drove to Georgetown was exciting enough to drawn me down to talk about what people had in mind and how I could help.

I stumbled into the fine hall after the ceremony had already begun, taking a seat just behind Jon Hiatt, Sweeney’s long time general counsel at SEIU and now the AFL, who reached out his hand, and Bill Lurye, from New Orleans sitting down the row past Ray Abernathy and Denise Mitchell, the communications wizards I had known so long.

Listening to John read his very personal speech, I could see Ray imperceptibly nodding as he heard the words that he had no doubt helped shape for John as he has so many times before.  In the wake of the Ted Kennedy funeral and the very public expressions of faith, including the revelation of the recent letter from Senator Kennedy that was hand delivered by President Obama to the Pope, John and Ray had obviously decided in this very Jesuit institution to have John speak very comfortably and personally in his own testament to his Catholic faith as part of his service to working people.  Bob Welsh later commented to me at the reception that for all of the thousands of speeches he has heard John give this was the first one he could recall that was so deeply and personally Catholic as a man, rather than as even a Catholic labor leader.

Having long heard the Sweeney standard preamble that recognizes virtually every labor leader in any room where he is speaking, the beginning was more personal and less political as he named every Sweeney relative in the room and only mentioned Rich Trumka, his coming successor, whom I visited with later, and Arlene Holt, who I may have missed in the crowd.  Clearly, I was hearing the end of Sweeney’s political service and something of his transition to whatever his new and more personal service is likely to be.

Reading the program, it was hard to believe that he had been at the AFL-CIO for 14 years.  Could it have been that long?  And, that he had headed SEIU for 15 years.  Was it really that brief?

The President of Georgetown, Dr. John DeGioia, may have captured his recent career better in noting what I would call his “stewardship” in keeping faith in hard times for institutional labor.  Perhaps that subdued and solid note is most apt. Though it’s sad in a sense of what “could have been” to those of us who stood and hollered, as I did as a proud delegate from the New Orleans AFL-CIO and comrade from SEIU for my President as he spoke as the candidate of change and hope to reform and revitalize labor and offered to lead the AFL-CIO in a different direction in New York in that convention, when Sweeney won as a reform candidate there now years ago.  Now, we have a shattered house of labor still trying to find its future, and an AFL-CIO that is still profoundly better than what he found there, I believe, but still not what we had hoped it might have become.

My friends, comrades, brothers and sisters with whom I’ve shared so much were there in full, graying force.  It was good to see Gerry Shea whose path has now crossed and intertwined with mine for 40 years now back to welfare rights.

It was sobering at the reception to visit with Steven Greenhouse, the Times’ labor reporter, and ask him, as one of the most knowledgeable observers from outside the various houses of labor, where he thought the best new organizing was happening in the country, and realize that what used to a casual and easy question, had clearly caught him off guard.   He easily cited for Joe McCartin the stories where he had covered my organizing on his beat, when I directed the HOTROC campaign among hospitality workers in New Orleans as part of the early Sweeney AFL-CIO organizing offense when our shared friend, Kirk Adams, was the AFL’s Organizing Director, and again in Orlando and Tampa when he covered the drives we were running among Wal-Mart workers on a project supported by the AFL, SEIU, and the UFCW, when we were still all together and still trying to break new organizing ground just five years ago until everything split apart in the middle of our work.  On one hand he confessed that his editors weren’t really interested in organizing, but also conceded that there wasn’t much he could find either.  His last big organizing story he said might have been the campaign that I had helped develop and shepherd through as a partnership with ACORN and the UFT to organize the tens of thousands of home child care workers in New York City.  Joe more gracefully changed the subject to the organizing I was doing internationally to create unions of waste pickers in India, but the work there doesn’t explain or excuse the “waiting for EFCA” vacuum in so much organizing here.

Sweeney time and service was being appropriately recognized, and he and his team deserved the thanks for progress made and promised kept, even if there were many dreams unrealized and disappointments on the road.  It was an honor just to be in the room and to be fortunate enough to be there for such a great occasion with some many comrades and friends.  Many if there were more hosts and facilitators like the good, committed Jesuits of Georgetown and the thoughtful wise veterans in the allied trades, like Professor and friend, Joe McCartin, we could still make many of these dreams still come true.