John J. Sweeney
John J. Sweeney recently receives Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree
In 1995 John J. Sweeney challenged the established leadership
of the 13 million member AFL-CIO Labor Union by running, with Richard Trumka
and Linda Chavez-Thompson, on a platform that put a greater emphasis on
three points: organizing, promoting women and people of
color to leadership positions within the union movement, and
assuming a more active political role to build a strong voice
for working families. That year he was elected President at the
federation's biennial convention in New York.
Photo and article printed by permission from Oberlin College
Sweeney's first job in the labor movement was with the
International Ladies' Garment Workers. In 1960 he joined the
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and was
elected its president in 1980, serving four terms. At a time
when union membership in the United States was
experiencing sharp declines, the SEIU was the
fastest-growing union, doubling its membership to 1.1 million.
Innovative and aggressive organizing among low-paid service
employees, particularly women and people of color, is said to
account for Sweeney's success at the SEIU. Under his
presidency, the SEIU built broad community alliances and
organized a wide range of actions and demonstrations to
highlight the plight of the most economically insecure
members of the American workforce.
Sweeney has been a vigorous supporter of the AFL-CIO's
Organizing Institute (OI), set up in 1990. The OI recruits heavily
from college campuses with the intention of training young
union organizers; since its inception, nearly 30 Oberlin
students have participated in the program. Nearly two dozen
Oberlin students have also been active in another AFL-CIO
program, Union Summer.
Sweeney is the author of America Needs a Raise: Fighting for
Economic Security and Social Justice (Houghton-Mifflin,
1996). A graduate of Iona College, he holds a degree in
economics. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Maureen, a former
New York City schoolteacher, and their two children.
Associate Professor of Politics Chris Howell of Oberlin College,
recently presented Sweeney with an honorary doctor of laws degree.
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