February 4, 2021
New Orleans In the old culture of the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO, where Local 100 and I spent twenty-five years, I would be buying a plane ticket for John Sweeney’s funeral right now, if the pandemic allowed it. It would be expected, and I would embrace it. It would be an expression of loyalty and thanks, a tribute to a warrior fallen, a token of brotherhood in a long tradition, now much frayed, of solidarity, that still sometimes emerges as a bright light in the shadow of today’s diminished labor movement. When there’s a memorial service, I’ll be there, one way or another. That’s just the way it is supposed to me. John, his family, and the union would have expected it, and no matter how some of us bridled at the old school traditions, we learned the culture, valued the man, even when we disagreed, we would not have hesitated to be there to show respect.
John Sweeney was a rebel in the top ranks, but a contradiction. Glad to be a bridge to the old lions and New York labor clans, but willing, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, to take the risks to leave them behind. Once he had conviction, he had courage.
John and I weren’t close. When Andy Stern was SEIU’s organizing director, he would prepare me for meetings with him where we would be pitching organizing plans and subsidies, often with advice more cultural than substantive. I can remember one time at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri that went a bit off the rails. Andy walked out with me, shaking his head, surprised at what he thought was a pro forma meeting with both of us behaving ourselves, but somehow had gotten sparky. As the saying goes, I could bring the Irish out of John. He wasn’t easy to work with, but at the same time, he was good to work with. There may not have always be agreement, but there was respect.
He would sternly and sharply lay down the law with me, but then support my organizing all the way, over and over. He didn’t really trust me. I didn’t bleed purple, but my blood was all organizing. Our relationship was transactional. It wasn’t easy, but somehow it worked, mostly because others were good at whispering in his ear and guiding my path. He liked me for what I did, not who I was, and eventually over the years, we became more comfortable. I understood completely. Tell me what other labor leader would have abided me being an organizer for SEIIU and chief organizer of ACORN, as the nation’s largest community organization at the same time? Nobody, but Sweeney, and that speaks to his largeness and his unique vision of leadership.
We helped the union grow, and Sweeney helped us grow. He picketed with us at the Hyatt and then had me join them for lunch at the Bon Ton with Gene Upshaw of the NFLPA and the presidents of the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas AFL-CIOs. He flew me up to introduce Bill Clinton to the SEIU board when Bill was running for president. He backed our drives in Texas with school workers from the beginning. We were delegates to the AFL-CIO convention to vote for him in New York in his radical move to challenge and win the presidency and at the celebration when he won. He was there to help broker the deal with me, Andy Stern, and then Mayor Marc Morial to organize hotels and public workers in New Orleans at the next Los Angeles AFL-CIO convention.
Labor lost members during his time, but that’s on all of our shoes, not John Sweeney’s. With his support, while Kirk Adams and Mark Splain were organizing directors, the labor density in New Orleans with our work, the Avondale shipyard campaign, and the effort to organize boat hands on the Gulf Coast, grew to the largest percentage of any southern city at over 20% of labor density which held until Katrina. He pledged to support organizing in the South and he meant it. The AFL-CIO supported our efforts to organize Walmart in Florida to the end, even as both the SEIU and UFCW abandoned our campaign.
Would I have been at John Sweeney’s funeral? Without a question. I would be sitting in the backrow, just as I did at Georgetown University when he gave his speech there on retiring from the AFL-CIO. Not just because of his support, but because of little things. I can’t remember now whether it was our first meeting in Traverse City, Michigan or the next one in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, but our young son, Chaco lost his hearing aid running around the lobby of the hotel. John Sweeney happened to walk by on his way somewhere in a hurry as always. He saw Beth and I desperately searching for it, and got on his knees in suit and tie and crawled around on the floor with us helping look until it was found.
That’s the kind of man that John Sweeney was. It was an honor to work with him, and, as hard as it often might have been for me to say, to also work for him.