Creating an Atmosphere for Reform

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.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
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