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John J. Sweeney : Can the Vigor be Restored to America's Labor Movement?

October 29, 1995|Harry Bernstein | Harry Bernstein covered labor issues for The Times for 32 years. He interviewed John J. Sweeney after the convention ended in New York

NEW YORK — Unions in America are in trouble. Membership, as a percentage of the work force, is less than half of its peak in the 1950s, corporations are battling them harder than at any time in recent years and a virulently anti-union majority in Congress is striving to pass legislation that will make them even weaker.

On Wednesday, soft-spoken John J. Sweeney, 61, won the first contested election for the presidency of the AFL-CIO, the only federation of labor unions in the United States. During the federation's convention here, he was elected by a narrow margin to lead labor out of the morass it is struggling in.

Sweeney is no fire-brand orator but a determined leader who helped his own union, the Service Employees International, double its membership to 1.1 million in less than a decade. He won a bitterly contested election against Thomas Donahue, who held the job briefly after the former president, Lane Kirkland, resigned because of widespread complaints that he had lost touch with the membership and, at 73, was too old. Donahue lost chiefly because he was closely linked to Kirkland. Meanwhile Sweeney, the dissenting candidate, promised to be "a new voice for labor."

Sweeney's vision of his role as America's top labor leader is to help labor regain the militancy it had in the 1930s--some say a nearly impossible task. But he says it can be done. This might be a mistake. There is so much divisiveness, and the work force is so differently structured today, that Sweeney might want to reconsider Donahue's suggestion that labor should "start building bridges" toward its enemies to achieve its goals--instead of blocking them with massive street demonstrations. But right or wrong, Sweeney was elected on his promise to lead a far more militant labor movement than the nation has seen in a long time.

Remember, few Americans--perhaps only 3%--even knew the name "Kirkland." To be the new voice of labor, Sweeney has to dramatically increase his visibility and persuade workers that unions can stop the steady decline of their wages and benefits. He must reunite a movement badly divided by the battle for the presidency. Donahue left the convention in a huff before it ended--so angry he did not even repeat the statement he made before the election, that "when this is over, we will be united again because our real enemies are outside this convention hall."

Observers say Sweeney is deceptively mild, a man of deep convictions who began life in the labor movement as an elevator operator and says that, at times, workers and unions must be confrontational, must block bridges and streets and use civil-disobedience tactics to "win the good fight for workers in and out of unions." He is married to Maureen, a former New York school teacher. They have two grown children, John, a chef, and Patricia, who is herself active in the union movement.

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Question: You have already announced your firm support for President Clinton's reelection even though he has done relatively little about the issues you say are so critical to the future of unions. Won't the President take your support for granted and do nothing more than he already has for workers and unions--since he already has your endorsement for the 1996 election?

Answer: I think just the opposite. The President, while he has done some things we have not agreed with, he has done a lot of pro-worker business. I think we have to be realistic. There is never going to be labor-law reform as long as the present Congress has the leadership it has. I think the President knows that all too well. He knows he cannot ignore our needs, because he respects the fact that the labor movement has the resources of its members and its political muscle that are essential to his campaign--and to help turn Congress around, too. He will not take us for granted.

Q: Unions have been sloganizing for decades about the need to organize more workers and become far more active in politics. Other than to call for an intensification of your efforts to achieve those goals, what changes do you plan for the federation leadership and for getting more rank-and-file members directly involved?

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