John J. Sweeney’s Celebratory and Complicated Legacy

ACORN Personal Writings Unions

May 6, 2022

            Washington     John Sweeny was the head of the Service Employees in 1984, when the United Labor Unions, affiliated with SEIU.  I met him then.  I last saw him in 2009 at a packed, standing room only gathering at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall when he was given an honorary degree there, right after his retirement as head of the AFL-CIO.  Now, thirteen years later, I was back in the same exact hall on what would have been Sweeny’s birthday, but instead was a memorial celebration of his life a little more than a year after his death.

This event was in so many ways more moving than the earlier ceremony.  Sweeney gave a speech then that was validatory, still in the afterglow of his period of power in the labor movement.  Sweeney then was still speaking to the future and in many ways sending a message to the Obama administration about the hopes of labor after years in the Bush wilderness.  This event was different.  It was for the family.  It was for the veterans who had worked in Sweeny’s vineyards at SEIU and the AFL-CIO.  There were testimonies from big leaguers.  A US Senator spoke.  President Biden sent a message.  There was a video of President Obama giving Sweeney the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Labor leaders from the ILO and the international federation sent messages, as did Pablo Alvarado from the day laborers organization, NDLON.  The current head of the AFL-CIO, the first woman president, gave remarks, as did several of the first women EVPs, underlining Sweeny’s role in advancing gender equality and immigration issues in the federation.

Many of the speeches were personal, none more so than those of Mary Kay Henry, the current president of SEIU.  I found it telling that she thanked the family for asking her to speak.  She told a story of a skit she organized at her first SEIU board meeting.  Afterwards, Sweeney sent word for her to come meet him in his office.  She claimed she feared for her job.  Once there, he swiveled around in his chair and was laughing about the affair.  She was relieved, but as she left, he also said one more thing, “Don’t pull a stunt like that at another board meeting without telling me first.”  That story was so John Sweeney, so old school, so warm, and so disciplined.

It summed up my own complicated and contradictory relationship with Sweeney.  Taken to the woodshed often, I can remember an early meeting with him about a subsidy during a Central States Conference meeting at Lake of the Ozarks.  Going in, the session was thought to be perfunctory, a kissing of the ring and a blessing to go forward.  There had been some of that, but there was finger waving and stern warnings that went with it.  Walking out, Andy Stern, then SEIU’s organizing director, turned to me and said, “I don’t know what it is about you that brings this out in Sweeney.”  I knew what it was though.  There was respect and support for my work, but John deeply understood that I was not really “on the team” in the ways that were so important to him.  I wasn’t disloyal, quite the contrary, but largely because of the ACORN connection, despite running an SEIU local, I just wasn’t a hundred percenter.  Perhaps recognizing that, several old comrades asked me why I had come to this memorial.  My response was simple.  Respect.  Respect needed to be paid to Sweeney, just as he had paid it to me by investing literally millions in organizing projects, I had directed with SEIU and later in partnership with the AFL-CIO.  We came from different cultures, different experiences, different traditions, different politics, but at the bottom line, despite any reservations he had about me, he supported the work we had done expansively, and, frankly, despite my reservations about his leadership, I never failed to support his ambitions for the labor movement in every way that I could.

I was glad to see old friends, comrades and fellow travelers whose paths I had crossed many times in the past, but not so much over the last decade or during the pandemic.  It was a great event put together with real love for the man and his work, and it was wonderful to be a witness to it all.  My only regret, as I mentioned to Joe McCartin, a once upon a time former organizer with Houston ACORN a million years ago and now professor at Georgetown and preeminent labor historian, who had given the closing remarks and perspective about Sweeny, as he had earlier written in Social Policy, I was sorry that I didn’t see more former SEIU warriors at the event.  I had hoped this might be an occasion that helped heal some of the riffs between SEIU and the AFL-CIO that had led to their split from the federation.  The SEIU people at Georgetown this time were mostly those that had also joined the AFL-CIO under Sweeney or were connected through ties to his old New York local, 32BJ and the janitors organizing.

I had hoped perhaps that water was more under the bridge, but sadly it still seems to be running.  It would have been a nice coda to Sweeny’s legacy if, remembering his life and work, this event had brought more unity back to the US labor movement in this moment when workers are stepping up and demanding more.  Such a hope was sentimental and unrealistic.  Unity is not the core of the business of institutional labor.  This celebration of John J. Sweeney’s life and legacy, was about the heart and hope of the labor movement and Sweeny’s commitment, that we all shared, to that vision, which is a much, much different and better thing.