Former AFL-CIO and SEIU President John Sweeney
John Sweeney was president of the AFL-CIO from 1995 to 2009, and is currently a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
HPR: When you were president of SEIU Local 32B in New York in the ’70s, you led a strike against the New York Realty Advisory Board and won some major contract improvements. What is it like to lead a strike?
John Sweeney: The most important thing is that you have to have strong support from the workers themselves. Any strike is a tremendous sacrifice on the part of workers and their families, and you’re never sure how long it’s going to last. Whoever is leading the strike has to feel comfortable that they’ve built up the support of the workers and that the workers are firmly committed to achieving some success.
Having that support makes it more comfortable in terms of the charge that you’re leading and the issues that you’re striving to achieve, to get some negotiating success. I never went on strike without having that kind of spirit and that kind of enthusiasm.
HPR: You merged the Service Employees International Union with many other unions during your presidency. Was that effective? Do you find that broad unions are better than industry-specific ones?
JS: It depends. The greatest number of mergers that we had within SEIU were with independent, public unions such as state employees. They have to be convinced that the program the national union is proposing is something these folks understand, that would improve their representation of the workers. It makes their organization a lot stronger and more effective in dealing with employers.
We had a pretty good track record. We were pretty successful in merging those types of associations. For the most part, they stayed affiliated with SEIU for years.
HPR: What do you feel is the biggest threat to unions and unionization today, and how should unions respond?
JS: One of the biggest threats is the impact globalization has on workers and on their organizations. It’s important to recognize that the AFL-CIO isn’t going to stop globalization, but it certainly is going to strengthen its program in making globalization work for workers. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen the impact globalization has had on the lives of workers.
There are a number of issues that the AFL-CIO has to focus on to represent their affiliates and their members. Rich Trumka, the new AFL-CIO president, has a very ambitious campaign focused on growth in the labor movement and raising member participation in the activities of the labor movement.
HPR: You won the only contested presidential election in the AFL-CIO’s history. What did you learn from the campaign and how did that affect your presidency?
JS: When I say it was the only contested election, you have to be mindful that the AFL and the CIO were two separate federations until they merged in 1955. It was the first contested election after the merger.
One of the things we learned was the importance of solidarity. It was so important for the affiliates to be united. The more united you are, the stronger the federation is. Once we won the election, it was important that we unify all the affiliates—those who had supported us and those who had supported Tom Donahue. That was what we were going to be stressing in all the proposals we were making as the new administration of the AFL-CIO.
HPR: How involved do you think unions should be with politics? Is it more important to focus on organizing members or on electing candidates?
JS: I think they have to do both. There’s no question about it, organizing is important and it has to be strengthened, but I also think it’s important that some of the organizing is focused on politics and mobilizing workers in support of candidates who support them and who are committed to an agenda that improves the lives of working people. You can’t do one without the other. You have to elect supportive people and hold them accountable to approve legislation that’s going to strengthen working folks and their families.
HPR: What do you think is the future of the Employee Free Choice Act? Will it pass? Will it have to be modified?
JS: I’m very hopeful that EFCA is going to pass and hopefully pass soon. I think it’s long overdue in terms of reforming our national labor laws. I believe that workers have been discriminated against in the way the National Labor Relations Act has been interpreted by administrations in the past and by judicial decisions on issues that affect workers. It’s about time we took a hard look at how workers can express themselves as to whether they want to unionize or they don’t want to unionize.
If we look at what different countries around the world do, there’s a number of different ways in which countries have changed their own labor laws, favoring workers, and strengthening collective bargaining and strengthening representation.
Kristin Eberts ’13 is a Contributing Writer. This interview has been edited and condensed.