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Sweeney History


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.

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.

Photo and article printed by permission from Oberlin College

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