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John Sweeney: The Man Who Wanted to Be a “Big Labor” Leader

Despite the best efforts of former AFL-CIO leader John Sweeney, organized labor has continued its decline. Not only have we been politically defeated, but our very historical memory of struggle is under assault. We desperately need to find a way to make “big labor” truly big again.

Outgoing AFL-CIO president John Sweeney speaks to members of the AFL-CIO at the organization's annual conference in September 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)

John Sweeney, the president of SEIU and then the AFL-CIO, who died February 1, at the age of eighty-six, was a terrible public speaker. Sweeney had none of the emphatic eloquence of union leaders in US history like Eugene Debs, John L. Lewis, or Walter Reuther. A former colleague of mine when I worked in the labor movement as a comprehensive campaigner used to get lots of laughs behind closed doors with a witheringly unfair yet pitch-perfect imitation of a halting Sweeney glancing constantly at an index card that included essential reminders like the names of major unions.

But Sweeney had one great line that he delivered in pretty much every speech, and it always excited his audience. It went something like this: “The companies and the conservatives keep calling me a ‘Big Labor’ leader. All I can say is that it’s better to be a Big Labor leader than a small labor leader!” The wild cheering of union crowds when Sweeney spoke that line — usually, when I heard it, composed mostly of union staffers — was a tribute to the utopian aspirations it evoked in the labor movement’s segment of an ascendant, leftist professional managerial class fraction.

Union busters have used the phrase “Big Labor” for generations to evoke an authoritarian, subversive cabal of unions that was, most of all, powerful, a profound threat to capital. Sweeney reveled in owning, as a badge of honor, the anger and contempt he received from labor’s enemies. He sought to embody the large ambitions those enemies projected onto him.

Despite those ambitions, Sweeney was not, however, the leader of a big labor movement and, notwithstanding his best efforts, American labor continued its steady decline that began during the mid-1950s.

But he gave it a try. Sweeney revisited the “labor question” and sought to restore its centrality in American life — meaning the encompassing, often violent struggle between capital and labor over the terms of an aspirationally egalitarian yet deformed American democracy in the workplace, in the community, and at the ballot box.

That labor question dominated American political culture beginning in the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century through the advance of the great industrial, mining, and transportation unions of the CIO and the Teamsters in the 1930s and 1940s. But, in the mid-1990s, decades after the apex of union power, there was an element of sentimentality to the quest to reignite the labor question. Yet those of us doing strategic work for unions in this period saw ourselves as being ruthlessly unsentimental specialists in class struggle — trained experts necessary to compensate for the perceived quiescence of modern rank-and-file militancy. But really, like Sweeney, we didn’t want to be union technocrats; we desperately wanted to believe we could make the labor question matter again.

Harold Meyerson has written an acute analysis of the Sweeney years and an encomium to his life and career — a New York, Irish Catholic working-class son of a bus driver and a domestic worker, who spent most of his life working for the union, specifically SEIU — so I don’t wish to repeat Harold’s sharp account. Instead, I want to convey what Sweeney’s project looked like to a union staffer inside of the AFL-CIO and what I think he — and I — got wrong and got right.

Winning the AFL-CIO

In 1995, I thought Sweeney had a shot to generate dramatic political changes in the labor movement and thus in the United States. During the fight for control of the AFL-CIO between the George Meany–Lane Kirkland–Tom Donahue regime and Sweeney’s New Voices union coalition, I worked in the AFL-CIO building for the Industrial Union Department. The IUD, dominated by its major affiliates, the Steelworkers, Autoworkers, and Machinists, was the semi-autonomous consolation prize awarded to CIO and UAW leader Walter Reuther when the smaller CIO merged with the AFL in 1955 and AFL president George Meany became its president. (Meany, the country’s most prominent labor leader for over a generation, was famously proud that he had never gone on strike or walked a picket line.)

We who worked in the IUD believed we were different than the building-trades-dominated AFL side of the building. We carried forward the legacy of Reuther’s social unionism, a belief in multiracial organizing, especially in the deep South, and an in-house resistance to the paralyzing dogma we confronted whenever we stepped out of our third-floor offices.

I personally enjoyed pissing off the reactionaries. One time, a Cold War apparatchik grimly asked me who I “spoke for” when I mentioned in a brief speech (for reasons I no longer remember) that Eugene Debs had gotten 16 percent of the vote in Oklahoma during the 1912 presidential election. Later, I was reported to my boss by an otherwise amiable international affairs guy for expressing leftist leanings during a trip to build solidarity with Italian tire workers in 1994.

So it can’t be understated how exciting and significant we IUD staffers (and some quiet sympathizers elsewhere in the building, too) believed the Sweeney insurgency was. In addition to my strategic campaigning job at the IUD, I had studied and taught labor history and thought the stakes of the Sweeney-Donahue contest were enormous. (Donahue, who took over after Kirkland’s forced resignation, had been Sweeney’s mentor at SEIU decades earlier — a creative, decent trade unionist who was trapped in the wrong coalition at the wrong time.) Working for a boss connected to the leadership of the insurgency and listening intently to the secrets he sometimes unspooled in his office, I was one step removed from the strategic maneuvering and the plotting: there was no rank-and-file voting — indeed, no rank-and-file interest in any of it — but instead a kind of Electoral College of organized labor; unions voted proportionally based upon their size.

The fight wasn’t the streets against the suites, but the suites on one side of K Street NW in Washington, DC, versus the suites on the other side of K Street NW. It was a vicious but formally circumscribed contest among mutually familiar top-level players, resembling the College of Cardinals picking a pope.

Still, it was extraordinary to think that labor could undertake any kind of fight to displace the leadership of its major federation at all. It had only happened once before in 1895, when AFL president Samuel Gompers had lost the job to John McBride, the president of the Mineworkers, who sought to link labor to the Populist Party’s militant effort to reorganize the political economy and achieve state power — and then Gompers beat McBride in a rematch the following year and held the position until his death in 1924. But exactly a century following McBride’s brief upset, Sweeney’s coalition of mostly public-sector, retail, and manufacturing unions defeated Tom Donahue’s coalition of mostly reactionary building trade unions, Albert Shanker’s American Federation of Teachers, and other odd elements. (One major progressive union, for example, stayed with Donahue’s status quo candidacy out of, I was told, mere friendship between Donahue and the union’s president.)

We Weren’t Dangerous Enough

When Sweeney’s team took over the building, there was a crazy good level of “about time!” energy. Sweeney brought in serious, sometimes strategically brilliant organizers and idiosyncratic symbol analysts and eggheads. The organizers set up Union Summer and the Organizing Institute to create links to budding, college age labor leftists. The eggheads created huge files of information about every major economic sector in the country and their key corporations. The idea was to flip the place upside down. At the time, I was told that the Sweeney people were reading Nelson Lichtenstein’s recently published biography of Reuther, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit.

Of course, there were always fights, always workers wanting a union or defending the one they had; I knew and worked with them — bakery workers, steelworkers, aluminum workers, tire workers from Michigan to West Virginia to Tennessee to Louisiana to New York City. But this wasn’t the explosions of 1934 or 1937, or the great strike wave of the mid-1940s, when over 14 percent of the country’s workers walked off their jobs.

Still, the Reuther bio was a tell: the model, the aspiration, was the CIO and the UAW in its prime — to turn that reams of data into millions of newly mobilized union members. We hoped that John Sweeney would become the most dangerous man in Washington and beyond.

The central defining event of the Sweeney presidency — understood as emblematic of its largest vision, if not its quotidian operations — was not an organizing campaign or a strike (although the victorious 1997 two-week Teamsters UPS strike was a very big deal) but “The Fight for America’s Future: A Teach-in with the Labor Movement,” held at Columbia University in October 1996. The ’60s-era resonance of the descriptor, “teach-in,” was no coincidence. The event was to mark the reunification of leftist intellectuals and academics with much of organized labor, a coalition that had foundered during the sclerosis of the ’50s.

The 1962 Port Huron Statement, the founding text of the New Left, had excoriated labor’s reactionary bureaucracy. Then came the division between Meany’s AFL-CIO over the Vietnam War, the most militant activism of the black freedom movement, and the great feminist and gay liberation struggles against the conventions and brutalities of gender norming.

The Columbia event had been organized by a nascent organization begun by leftist intellectuals called Scholars, Artist, and Writers for Social Justice, or SAWSJ. Sweeney and his team assigned a senior liaison to the group and saw the possibilities of having a powerful, organizational instrument to culturally reproduce and energize American trade unionism.

SAWSJ was the heart, I think, of those utopian yearnings that Sweeney shared with so many leftist intellectuals and leftist union staffers like myself — it was no coincidence, as one of its founders told me recently, that SAWSJ privileged “artists” and writers,” rather than the antiseptic, industrial labor-management specialists that defined labor in the academy during the stasis of Meany’s era and that of the “end of ideology.” No — SAWSJ wished to provide a lovely spark, a mass outpouring of creative language and images that might re-charge, not just re-present, the labor question.

While working at the IUD, I attended the Columbia event on my own dime. The cliché of an “electric” atmosphere was, for once, appropriate. Low Library was packed with progressive academics, journalists, and labor activists spanning three generations. The keynote speakers were the cream of American liberal and leftist public intellectuals (the distinction mattered sometimes during the teach-in, sometimes not).

Betty Friedan, herself a leftist union journalist for the UE in the 1940s, returned to the radical labor politics she had subsequently sought to obscure, and declared that she had a “pretty good historical Geiger counter,” and she thought, just as when she published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, it was going off again, auguring a massive upsurge of unions and another huge leftist movement. Richard Rorty, the philosopher and self-labeled “Hubert Humphrey liberal,” also worked himself back to his past — in his case, his father’s work with unions and the Communist Party in the 1930s. His talk described the history of the labor movement as that of “heroic self-deprivation” and, with an eerie power, quoted the British Labour Party’s anthem, “The Red Flag,” which begins as follows:

The people’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead

Cornel West went off on one of his astonishing rifts connecting, in a recurrent cadence, “Brother Sweeney” to the “rich Irish tradition of struggle” evoked by Eugene O’Neill and other twentieth-century Irish and Irish American writers.

Sweeney himself spoke badly, as usual — I stood squeezed at the side of the stage listening — but poignantly and proudly, surrounded as he was by some of the most polemically gifted people on Earth. He seemed to appreciate this, smiling and nodding his head frequently, as he listened to Friedan, Rorty, West, and Columbia’s host eminence, Eric Foner. The great conflicts that marked the New Left’s and the modern academy’s divorce from labor were argued through that night and during the sessions the following day — the AFL-CIO’s support for imperial and violent American foreign policy, and the need to affirm a labor movement that included but expanded beyond the emblematically white, male manufacturing, mining, and transportation workers of mid-century. But, despite the comradely disputes, the vibe was good — astonishingly good, at least as I saw it. This looked like it had legs.

When thinking about the Columbia teach-in then, I thought, too, over and over again, about the very last page of EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson, attuned to the heroic, egalitarian possibility of the “making” of class, but also to its mournful, contingent abridgement, closed his great work by lamenting how radical artisans fiercely fought the new exploitation of industrial capitalism, while the poets, artists, and writers of the Romantic movement were savaging its Utilitarian ideology — yet only William Blake “was at home in both cultures.”

John Sweeney, then-president of the AFL-CIO, stands during the AFL-CIO convention on July 25, 2005 in Chicago, IL. (Tim Boyle / Getty Images)

Alas, the workers and Romantics were “running [a] parallel but altogether separate course.” Thompson continued with an extraordinary remark: “both the Romantics and the Radical craftsmen opposed the annunciation of Acquisitive Man. In the failure of two traditions to come to a point of junction, something was lost.” I am not sure if the founders of SAWSJ thought of that passage by Thompson when they put the organization together (although many of them were labor historians, so it would not surprise me). And it is true that countless leftist intellectuals had supported and joined with the labor movement over the history of capitalist modernity. But SAWSJ was an effort, 175 years after the split Thompson grieved, to fully fuse that point of junction. Maybe, just maybe, it might work this time . . .

Yet, again, as with Sweeney’s election as AFL-CIO president in the first place, my own historical Geiger counter, no less than Friedan’s, was faulty. Immersed in the Columbia episode — and, yes, a bit starstruck at listening to and meeting a few of the intellectuals and writers I had read my entire adult life — I took the teach-in to be a significant “event,” in the way that the historian and social scientist William H. Sewell explicated a few years later in his classic work “Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation.” Using the taking of the Bastille as his quintessential example, Sewell argued that historical events — as opposed to mere episodes — operated as “dislocations and dramatic rearticulations of structures.” Events, he continued, “reshape history, imparting an unforeseen direction to social development and altering the nature of the causal nexus in which social interactions take place.”

Of course, I didn’t think Sweeney’s election and then the teach-in rivaled in significance the storming of the Bastille — but I thought they did express a potent logic of dislocation and structural rearticulation. Perhaps labor was on the verge of taking an unforeseen direction to social development. I hoped intellectuals and cultural workers could, in solidarity, transmute the struggles of the many embattled workers I had met around the country.

Sweeney believed this, too, I think — one could hear it in his speech that night at Columbia. But SAWSJ never really got off the ground — the next planned big “teach-in” event at George Washington University in DC was a bust. Sweeney was there, but many fewer intellectuals spoke and to a much smaller crowd. (I missed that one myself, even though it happened in my home city.) SAWSJ was not able to meet its goal of generating countless teach-ins and forming local chapters on campuses and in cities around the country — it soon passed from the scene.

Indeed, a decade after his ascension at the AFL-CIO, Sweeney himself provoked the ire of reformist union leaders at SEIU, HERE, UNITE, and the Teamsters who grew frustrated with the same bureaucratic inertia and consensus decision-making structure that the New Voices coalition had targeted for destruction in 1995. And thus, Change to Win (CtW) was born. I was one of the first staff members assigned to it by its affiliated unions. Sure enough, prompted by a question from me at a small, early staff meeting, the superb senior organizer SEIU assigned to run CtW stated that, just like Sweeney’s energized brain trust in 1995, he, too, saw the CIO as the new federation’s model for militant, large-scale organizing.

However, that is a story for another day. On this day, I think I would say: maybe Sweeney and I weren’t entirely wrong. The linking of head and hand didn’t happen in the transformative dislocating fashion that, as Sewell argued, defines central, historical events. But there is a mobilized segment of leftist intellectual workers that Sweeney lived to see grow in its power of cultural reproduction, and also in its own workplace struggles, and in support of those of others.

But “not an event, but more than an episode” is kind of a liminal space where historical contingency still hangs in the balance. The labor movement remains at a low ebb, not only in the United States but throughout the “advanced” democracies of North America, Western Europe, Australia, and Eastern Asia. As Eric Hobsbawm observed several years before his death in 2012, the decimation of the manufacturing and mining sectors in most of these countries resulted not only in the loss of workplace power and political power through the social-democratic parties labor dominated, but also truncated the historical memory of struggle.

SAWSJ couldn’t surge against that current nor, by themselves, can today’s leftist intellectual laborers, whose cultural influence allows them to have more weight than their absolute numbers and sectoral placement would otherwise allow.

So, it’s a close call, but we are left with this always-provisional verdict of history: John Sweeney couldn’t give a public speech worth a damn and didn’t, despite great effort, increase the membership of American unions. Nor could he sustain the fragile cohesiveness of the warring unions within the AFL-CIO. But he had a vision that workers of all descriptions could come together and make a new American working class and begin to ask a new version of the labor question. And, yes, within the profound limitations noted above, some of these workers are starting to do that now.

In my book, that made Sweeney a big labor leader.