John J. Sweeney is widely credited with reinvigorating U.S. labor after years of complacency and shrinking relevance. Sweeney, now 65, has preached the importance of organizing almost nonstop since taking over leadership of the powerful AFL-CIO four years ago.
The amiable, soft-spoken leader, the son of Irish immigrants, attended his first union meetings at the knee of his father, a New York bus driver. His mother was a domestic worker. Sweeney often attributes his passion for labor causes and his empathy for working-class concerns to his upbringing. He made his name in national labor circles by leading the Service Employees International Union through landmark campaigns to organize immigrant and minority workers, including janitors and home-care providers. Four years ago, after launching a rare outsider's challenge, he won the presidency of the labor federation, which represents 13 million members.
He spoke with The Times at the end of the AFL-CIO national convention in Los Angeles in mid-October.
Q: You've often urged employers to take a high-road approach as they compete in an increasingly global, high-tech economy. Could you elaborate?
A: I like to use the example of U.S. Steel. I visited the plant recently, and here's a plant that's operating with probably half the work force of 10 years ago, with highly computerized production. They can change specifications, the thickness of steel, all by computer now, and for that they need a highly trained work force.
The company has invested in these workers, provided the training necessary for the new technology. It's also provided training for workers being attrited out to other jobs in U.S. Steel or even other jobs and other careers elsewhere. They have gone to the extent of paying some of these workers to get college degrees. If U.S. Steel can do that--invest in their workers and be a profitable company--then why can't more employers be investing? This is what I mean by the high road.
The best period of time to talk about this is right now, in a successful economy. Employers have to invest in their work force. They can't be relocating work to the most exploited and most low-wage regions of the world and regions of our own country. They have to realize that workers helped create the successful economy, the productivity, the profits.
I'm not going to argue what CEOs should be getting, but for God's sake, share a little bit with those who helped you achieve what you achieved. And it's not just employers; there are people in Congress who are in the leadership there who are doing everything they can to avoid a minimum-wage increase, doing everything they can to avoid health-care improvements. We tried to get health-care reform a few years back. There were 35 million Americans without health-care [insurance] then. Here it is 1999, and it's up to 44 million. That's a national disgrace. Retirement plans in the private sector are decreasing. That's not right, whether you're a compassionate conservative or a liberal Democrat. It's not about where you are in the political spectrum. It's what's right and what's wrong.
If we don't put this debate on the moral issue, then we're missing an opportunity. These folks who are in the leadership of the business world and people who are elected to public office have to face up to the fact that workers deserve respect and they deserve some dignity. We're not a Third World country.
Q: And yet many employers seem focused on reducing costs above all else. What would it take to change their minds?
A: I think the government has a role in this, and the labor movement certainly has a major role. To those who want to go the low road, we're going to mobilize the labor movement politically and every way we can to try to pull them back.
Q: As you're well aware, fighting a union has become quite acceptable, and has spawned a huge industry of consultants and attorneys. Do you think unions can overcome that opposition as they try to rebuild strength?
A: It's really difficult to project. All I can say is the labor movement will be organizing more aggressively than they've ever organized. We're going to be as militant as is necessary to represent workers, but at the same time we're going to be looking for opportunities to cooperate in labor-management partnerships. The bottom line is: How do we protect workers?
Q: Could you speak more about the idea of partnerships?
A: We are looking for employers who want to work with us. The labor movement is certainly anxious to have that kind of partnership, and we're seeing some success at it in some industries. But we're also seeing that some employers are so greedy, they don't want workers to have a voice. They'll do everything they can to hamper any organizing activities. There are a lot of horror stories out there.
Q: The 1980s have often been described as the decade of greed. Do you think those years helped set the tone for what you're describing?