March 13 – 19, 2002By Stephen McKinley
At Ground Zero, John Sweeney had little to say. But his presence there spoke volumes.
Sweeney, the Bronx-born president of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, was at the former World Trade Center site on Feb. 6 with union leaders from throughout the world. As he introduced delegates to firefighters and other workers, his presence was unobtrusive, even deferential, but the visit by the veteran of organized labor was a reminder that, as he put it, “so many working heroes lost their lives.”
Six hundred and thirty-three of those killed in New York were members of AFL-CIO-affiliated unions: firefighters, police officers, security staff, cleaning and ancillary workers, restaurant workers. For that reason alone, Sweeney’s visit was important, but as ordinary union workers spoke to the visiting union delegates, their appreciation of Sweeney as a champion on their behalf came to the fore.
Sweeney, who’s 68, may present an unobtrusive side, and he may sometimes sound as if he were reading from a script, but there is no doubting the doggedness of his fight for American workers. Journalist Jonathan Cohn called Sweeney the “moderate militant” in a 1997 New Republic article, noting that the man seems “courteous and grandfatherly . . . muted, congenial.”
For one New York City union organizer who declined to be named, the AFL-CIO leader’s mildness belies his muscle, something that he attributed to Sweeney’s roots. “To be a union organizer is to somewhat go against what America is all about: business, corporations, capitalism,” he said. “To organize effectively, you have to have an authoritative voice, but you can’t respect authority too much. I think that came out of his Bronx Irishness.”
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At Ground Zero, it was clear how much Sweeney was appreciated. One Chinese immigrant, a member of the Union of Needleworkers, Industrial and Textile Employees local 2325, said simply, “Seventy, 80 percent of our members are immigrants, many do not speak good English. To our president [Sweeney] we say thanks.”
Sweeney’s association with organized labor began as he was growing up in the Bronx, the child of Irish immigrant parents from County Leitrim. These roots have not been forgotten as Sweeney’s career has taken him all the way to Washington, D.C.
“I grew up in an atmosphere where I knew that my father’s union membership really raised our standard of living,” Sweeney said recently. “My mother was a domestic worker and I knew how hard she worked and I knew the difference between her job — she had nobody to speak for her except herself — and my father, [who] had his union — and he was proud of it.”
Now more than ever, union organizers say, American workers need voices like Sweeney’s. Labor representation took on new urgency after Sept. 11, as the country faced an even worse-than-predicted recession. Although the AFL-CIO was one of many voices calling, cajoling and demanding for federal assistance amid the massive Sept. 11 fallout, it became clear that Washington’s priority would not be working families,
One AFL-CIO member, a colleague of Sweeney, pointed angrily to just one example of what he said was the administration’s profoundly anti-working-families priorities: “They bailed out the aviation industry, but they won’t extend unemployment insurance for laid off aviation workers, for an extra 13 weeks. That kind of stuff is outrageous.”
Sweeney agreed. “Just look at what happened post-Sept. 11,” he said. “There was a rush to bail out the airline industry with a substantial package — I guess it was $15 billion. All kinds of promises were made that there would be provisions for the victims’ families. We were told that we couldn’t get that in the airline bailout bill, but that that would be addressed in the next round of airport security and airline regulations, and it didn’t happen there, either.”
Same old story
Then came Enron, which Sweeney said came as a surprise and yet as no surprise. The collapse may have been unprecedented in its scale, but the impact on workers was all too familiar.
“Basically, the vast majority of Enron employees had no one to speak for them,” said Sweeney, using once again the fundamental organized labor principle of a people having an organized, collective voice.
Sweeney’s voice may seem mild at times, but that, say some colleagues, is one of his greatest strengths.
“His mild public demeanor is a great political skill and a great unifying element,” said Joe Jameson, research director of the New York State AFL-CIO.
Sweeney continued, tersely but relentlessly questioning the scale of the Enron disaster: “It’s not just about Enron, it’s about protecting workers’ retirement security. It’s about how many other Enrons are there out there? How do we protect workers and their savings and retirement income?”
Already, he said, some successful changes were under way at the Congressional level. “We’ll see some bills, some proposals on strengthening pension security and 401Ks.” But, he added, as the post-Sept. 11 United States recognized the unstinting service of working men and women to the country during tough times, the administration itself is less than responsive.
“Every time we raise the issue of worker protection, the administration’s response is, ‘We have to have a tax cut or we have to have changes in corporate tax considerations’ and tax considerations for the very wealthy,” Sweeney said. “That is no stimulus for the economy. That money is not going to go back into the economy. The best way to stimulate the economy is to put money into the pockets of workers and that hasn’t been done yet.”
In contrast, Sweeney said, ordinary workers have moved mountains to help those most affected by Sept. 11 and its aftermath. It was when speaking of this spirit of altruism that Sweeney sounded clearly moved.
“The response that came from union members into the different funds for the different survivors was just overwhelming,” he said. “The volunteers who came from across the country — I know iron workers from California with sophisticated expertise in removing material who came across the country on their own, without discussion about what they were going to get paid, or even if they were going to get paid.”
The stories are legion, a fact that detracts nothing from their poignancy, Sweeney noted. The Service Employees International Union recently highlighted the case of maintenance workers Pedro and Manuela Pichardo, immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Both worked in the World Trade Center. Both were so badly injured on Sept. 11 that they have been unable to work since — but at least in their case, union membership has helped alleviate the burden. But the AFL-CIO estimates that two-thirds of workers who lost their jobs since Sept. 11 did not receive any unemployment insurance.
At the end of his Feb. 6 visit to Ground Zero, Sweeney and his colleagues got back on their bus, but before they drove off, Sweeney quietly introduced three immigrant workers, whose short Sept. 11 stories left the delegates and Sweeney visibly moved.
One, a member of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, said, “Since Sept. 11, 350 of my co-workers have been devastated. Seventy-three of them died, the rest are out of work.”
A Caribbean immigrant followed: “I worked here at the World Trade Center for 21 years. Sometimes we worked seven days a week. It was like a family. When the first plane hit the towers, my friend came to me on fire. I had to help put her out. The reason she got burned was because she operated an elevator.” Burning jet fuel had cascaded down the elevator shaft, engulfing her friend.
By making sure these simple, terrible stories had an audience, Sweeney once again fulfilled the core belief of giving workers a voice.
“He is someone who has never forgotten his roots,” said colleague Joe Jameson. “He’s very close to his community, from where he gets his talent as a force for organizing. As the corporate climate in the 1980s got worse for organized labor, membership of the SEIU [of which Sweeney was then president] actually grew and grew.”
For Sweeney, the force for good that organized labor represents is less governed by leaders like himself than by the power of social justice ideals.
“My Catholic education taught me the values of social justice issues and how important they were,” he said.
And he is optimistic, even in the current climate of a less-than-responsive Washington, Enron’s collapse and hard economic times.
“They are values that we see more and more among young people on college campuses, who get involved in human rights issues, anti-child-labor issues, living-wage campaigns,” he said. “I think the spirit that we saw back in the John F. Kennedy era with the Peace Corps and different programs like that, we’re seeing more and more among young people today.”