The Common Good
September-October 1998

Creating an Atmosphere for Reform

by Jim Wallis | September-October 1998

AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney talks about his priorities.

John Sweeney was born into a Catholic family in the Bronx, son of a bus driver and a domestic worker. He has long been known for his aggressive championing of the poorest and least powerful segments of the work force, first with textile workers and later as president of the Service Employees International Union, which grew from 625,000 to 1.1 million members during his tenure.

Sweeney was elected president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, vowing to recruit more women and to support organizing drives among low-paid immigrant workers in the fields, in construction, and in service industries. Sweeney, who wrote America Needs A Raise: Fighting for Economic Security and Social Justice (Houghton-Mifflin, 1996), lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Maureen, a former New York City school teacher, and their two children. He was interviewed this summer by Sojourners editor Jim Wallis at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C.

—The Editors

Jim Wallis:

How has your Catholic faith and identity shaped your role as a labor leader?

John Sweeney:

I went to Catholic parochial school, Catholic high school, and Catholic college. I learned about the papal encyclicals on social justice and so on. I was active in some social justice movements, such as the Young Christian Workers. When I got out of school, I continued to participate in different social justice related forums. I met a Jesuit priest named Phil Carey who ran a labor school for rank and file workers, for local union leaders and potential leaders. I went through the program at nights, and then taught some courses there. Throughout all of this, I have maintained my close ties with my religion, and close relationships with religious leaders. I've always been very active in social justice causes, far beyond just the labor movement's agenda.

Wallis:

You could be the president of the AFL-CIO without being a person of faith. What difference does your faith identity make in the way that you lead the nation's largest union organization?

Sweeney:

It's been very helpful to me in sorting out my own mission in life, my own values, my own goals. I have a strong realization that somebody up there must like me. I couldn't be here if I didn't have that kind of help. And no matter what kind of problem I'm faced with, big or small, I really pray for inspiration, some additional help beyond my own talents to sort out the right way to go and hope it works out for the best. There is no more satisfying job than realizing you can help people, and being able to convince them that by themselves they can't really achieve success, whether it's in terms of collective bargaining issues or in terms of how you work within your family or within your community.

Wallis:

Do you see potential for a stronger relationship between labor and religious communities?

Sweeney:

There is tremendous potential. Religion and labor have worked closely together in the past. We both are responsible for the decline in that relationship. I don't think candidates for the ministry or religious vocations get any appreciation for what religion and labor have done in the past, for how the labor movement relates to the social teaching of different churches. We need to raise the level of attention and education of young people entering religious life, as well as to raise the focus with rank and file folks.

I went to the auto worker convention yesterday. Monsignor George Higgins has for years been a member of their review board on ethical practices. He spoke at the convention. Having him there raises the attention in terms of the hundreds of others like him who have been with the labor movement on social issues for so long.

Wallis:

Religion has played various roles in relationship to labor, and in particular to strikes—one is solidarity, another is mediation. In the Detroit Free Press strike, some religious people were involved in solidarity and others in mediation. How do you see those roles in the religious community's relationship to labor in the future?

Sweeney:

Given who religious leaders represent and their position in the community, having a position of solidarity with the labor movement probably strengthens their ability to mediate. There's usually a respect in management as well for many of these individuals. But it's a role that religious leaders are playing less in recent years. The Detroit situation is a classic example of strong religious support for the strikers and yet a complete shutting up on the part of the employers. They haven't given [the religious leaders] any of the respect they have received in the past, in a lot of these situations, even amongst the most anti-union employers.

Wallis

: Sometimes religious communities need to take care of business in their own houses in terms of labor issues.

Sweeney:

That gets to be a tough issue sometimes—practicing what they preach. One specific example is in health care, where some religious folks are sitting down and talking about labor-management practices; mostly Catholics, but also Lutherans, who have a substantial number of health facilities and nursing home care facilities. We are going to reach out and try to start a dialogue there as well.

Wallis:

It is interesting that Monsignor Higgins was on the ethics committee for the auto workers. How does the ethics that derive from religion lead to a reform agenda in the labor movement?

Sweeney:

Like any other institution, we've had our experience with some corruption, but for the most part history will show some of the highest ethical standards for individuals as well as organizations. We have to deal with the good as well as the bad. There have been several examples through the years where the labor movement has measured up to its commitment to ethical practices and good honest representation of rank and file workers. We all derive a certain amount of strength from our different religious convictions, but for the most part there's a high level of moral standards throughout the labor movement.

Wallis:

You're known for being a reform labor leader. As leader of the AFL-CIO, you are going to get more and more pressure from reform-minded people at the grassroots. Anybody who is leading an institution always has that kind of tension. How is the reform agenda moving now in the labor movement?

Sweeney:

It's moving very well. When we talk about reform, we talk about openness, we talk about accountability, we talk about interaction between the rank and file and the highest level of leadership.

We've learned a lot over the past couple of years as to the attitudes of workers. There's a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm out there among the rank and file about building a stronger labor movement. But they don't want some group in Washington, D.C., dictating how that should be done. They want to be involved in the process. Whether it's politics or organizing or grassroots lobbying, they are anxious to play a role at the local level. They want to make sure that their priorities are the ones we are working on and that we're not developing priorities without interaction with them. This openness creates an atmosphere for reform at every level and within every program. Holding people accountable for their responsibilities—whether it's people in public office or employers—is something workers really think is crucial.

Wallis:

What kind of things are being done to make labor more democratic?

Sweeney:

The labor movement we have built in our country is a very democratic institution. The move toward greater openness creates opportunities for greater democracy at every level within the labor movement, but I think we have to be very focused on our governance and our ability to have democratic institutions that can perform and carry out the mandates of the membership. Programs like leadership development, training, and education, and making sure that there's diversity in terms of the faces at the top reflecting the faces of the rank and file—these are all different approaches to become an even more democratic institution.

Wallis:

From the point of view of working people, how do we navigate the difficult waters ahead as we move into a more and more global economy? Is globalization something we need to fight?

Sweeney:

The challenge over the long term is going to be how we navigate through globalization. Globalization is important to a successful economy, and globalization is only going to go one direction, the direction of growth. What we're dealing with is representing workers, not just in our own country but also in other countries around the world. What we are seeing is greater solidarity among the labor movement, domestically as well as internationally, on these issues.

In our dealings with our trading partners, we have to make sure we are focused on core labor standards—to quote the president's speech last month to the World Trade Organization, when he spoke out on core labor standards, human rights issues, and environmental issues in our trade agreements. That's what our battle over fast-track trade authority was all about. We want to have as strong a trading relationship and partnership as we possibly can have. But we want to make sure the workers are a part of the success of all this.

In the General Motors strike, two local unions had numerous grievances, including safety and health issues and a concern about their jobs, due to out-sourcing and unorganized plants. Two local unions go on strike, and General Motors is now going to shut down the whole company. They've shut down the Mexican operation. They are in the process of shutting down the Canadian operation. It is a clear example of what is going on and what workers are scared to death about.

Wallis:

The Hebrew prophets railed against gaps between rich and poor that pale in significance compared to gaps today. Thirty years ago, CEOs made 30 times what entry-level employees made; now it's 213 to one. That for us is a religious issue. The Bible says that big a gap is bad for society. You've spoken about that in a way that I'd call prophetic. That's a real connection between us.

Sweeney:

I was recently in Des Moines for the Iowa AFL-CIO. A minister gave the invocation. He said, ôMy wife and I went out to buy a pair of sneakers yesterday. I picked up this pair of sneakers and said, 'These are great and they're only $48.' I looked at the label: They're Nikes. Then I started to think about those poor girls in Indonesia who make these shoes. Michael Jordan—he's got his $20 million contract and Phil Knight, the CEO, made $300 million last year—Jordan said, 'It's not my problem.' Then I thought, suppose Martin Luther King had said to the sanitation workers in Memphis, 'It's not my problem.' Suppose Mother Teresa said to the lepers in India, 'It's not my problem.' What if Sweeney or I said this morning when we got up, 'It's not my problem.'ö It was a great message.

Wallis:

The president has pursued some policies that in my view are contrary to the interests of labor. Given NAFTA and GATT, and all the controversy about labor and campaign finance, is it in the best interest of the labor movement to be so totally supportive of the Democratic Party? Or would it be better to have a more independent kind of political voice holding both parties accountable?

Sweeney:

First on the relations with the president: We have had some differences. Probably the two most major differences were on trade issues, fast-track and NAFTA, and also welfare reform. But I think this has been basically an administration that has focused on the working family agenda. We have been big supporters of his initiatives on health care. The problem is that we have a majority in Congress that has been anti-worker. The Contract on America was a good example of what some people over there would like to do to programs that working families find necessary. I think if Newt Gingrich and the others did anything good for us, they scared the hell out of us. And that motivated a lot of our political activity in 1996. I think we let our guard down in 1994.

Having said all that, we should be more focused on individual candidates and less on party. I don't think the priorities we have are Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, but are working family issues. If the AFL-CIO and the labor movement is not going to take a major stance on these issues, then who is? I've worked in support of many Republican candidates in the past. Most of the time, Democrats are more supportive on these issues than Republicans are. There's a very limited number of Republican candidates these days who are focused on working family issues. We are trying to identify Republicans who at least are listening to workers in their own congressional districts.

Wallis:

What is the working families agenda with which you want to confront both parties?

Sweeney:

We've identified a number of issues that are priorities among workers. People are concerned about their own wages, which haven't kept up with the standard of living for the past 20 years. People are concerned about health care. The number of people who are without health insurance is now more than 40 million. They're concerned about pension security. They see workers in unorganized companies thrown out in their 50s after 25 years with no pension. They're concerned about workers' right to organize. They see more and more workers involved in union organizing campaigns that get fired because they join a union or try to form a union. There are 25,000 cases pending at the National Labor Relations Board of workers who have been discharged because of union activity. They're concerned about equal pay for women. There's concern with the growing numbers of part-timers with no benefits, no health care, no retirement. They have environmental concerns, and concerns about discrimination.

Wallis:

Is there still tension between unions and some of the low-wage organizing campaigns like Justice for Janitors and efforts with immigrant workers?

Sweeney:

There is a lot of attention being paid to low-wage worker campaigns and immigrant worker campaigns. Justice for Janitors here in Washington, D.C., finally got a contract and as a result got 2,000 members right off the bat, with potential for thousands more. United Food and Commercial Workers and the poultry campaign is doing very well—it's in its early stages but the coalition building with religious leaders has been very successful.

Wallis:

What word would you preach to church-based people about the kind of relationship you'd like to see between the churches and the labor movement?

Sweeney:

There's a rich history of religion and labor working together, and it extends to the civil rights community as well. Regardless of what a person's focus is in life, it is important to respect the job that every worker does. Whether it's the high-tech workers in Silicon Valley or the sweatshop workers in New York City, from the rank and file to the CEO, we are all entitled to the same kind of respect and the same kind of dignity.
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