Sweeney Elected President of AFL-CIO

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Sweeney Elected President of AFL-CIO

United States 1995


In its 40-year history, the AFL-CIO had never had an election contest until John J. Sweeney successfully challenged the interim president, Thomas Donahue, in October 1995. The election was preceded by another first. Lane Kirkland, president of AFL-CIO since 1979, was forced to retire in June 1995. He left under pressure from labor leaders who included both Sweeney and AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Donahue, who would have been Kirkland's chosen successor in a normal uncontested election. The unions' depressed state, a condition that had developed during Kirkland's tenure, precipitated the unhappy circumstance. Unions lost clout and membership, which dropped from 22 percent of the workforce in 1979 to 15.5 percent by 1995. Prior to his election to the top post of the AFL-CIO, Sweeney had been president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the fastest growing union with a membership of 1.1 million in 1995.


  • 1976: United States celebrates its bicentennial.
  • 1980: In protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter keeps U.S. athletes out of the Moscow Olympics. Earlier, at the Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, the U.S. hockey team scored a historic—and, in the view of many, a symbolic—victory over the Soviets.
  • 1986: Seven astronauts die in the explosion of the U.S. Space Shuttle Challenger on 28 January.
  • 1991: The United States and other allies in the UN force commence the war against Iraq on 15 January. By 3April the war is over, a resounding victory for the Allied force.
  • 1993: Muslim extremists carry out a bombing at the World Trade Center in New York City on 26 February, killing six and injuring thousands.
  • 1995: The Aum Shinrikyo cult carries out a nerve-gas attack in a Tokyo subway, killing eight people and injuring thousands more.
  • 1995: Bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, kills 168 people. Authorities arrest Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
  • 1995: Yugoslav forces step up their offensives in Bosnia and Croatia and conduct campaigns of "ethnic cleansing" to rid areas of non-Serb elements. By December, however, a Bosnia peace treaty will be signed.
  • 1995: After a lengthy and highly publicized trial charged with racial animosity, a Los Angeles jury takes just four hours to declare O. J. Simpson not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. In a 1997 civil trial, he will be found guilty and fined $33 million.
  • 1995: A Jewish extremist assassinates Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In elections the following May, Benjamin Netanyahu becomes the new Israeli leader.
  • 1998: In the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, terrorists affiliated with Saudi millionaire and Muslim extremist Osama bin Laden bomb U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds of people. President Clinton orders air strikes on terrorist camps in Afghanistan and an alleged chemical-weapons factory in the Sudan, but the action—which many observers dismiss as a mere tactic to take attention off the scandal—is ineffective and wins limited support.
  • 2001: On the morning of 11 September, terrorists hijack four jets, two of which ram the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A third plane slams into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a fourth crashes in an empty field in Pennsylvania. The towers catch fire and collapse before an audience of millions on live television. The death toll is approximately three thousand.

Event and Its Context

The Kirkland Legacy

By the time Lane Kirkland took over for George Meany as president of the AFL-CIO in 1979, the labor movement was already running into employer offensives against unions. In 1981, following failed efforts to reach a contract agreement, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), a union affiliate of the AFL-CIO, went on strike. Labor suffered a serious setback when President Ronald Reagan fired most of the nation's air controllers, enforcing a 1955 government regulation that denied federal employees the right to strike. Not only were 11,359 air traffic controllers fired, but Reagan then decertified their union. The PATCO fiasco contributed to the rapid decline in union membership in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1986 Kirkland said of predictions of the demise of the American unions that they would endure by committing themselves to "work within the system." Actually, Kirkland had no grassroots experience. Following service in the merchant marine during World War II, he studied at Georgetown University, where he graduated from the School of Foreign Service. Kirkland went directly to work for the AFL. In 1960 he was chosen to be executive assistant to AFL-CIO president Meany. He rose to the number two position of secretary-treasurer in 1969.

Kirkland became known as a "labor statesman" and was more concerned with the role of the AFL-CIO as a model for aspiring free trade unions behind the Iron Curtain than the local state of affairs. He was recognized for his tireless advocacy on behalf of Poland's Solidarity movement. At a memorial for Kirkland after his death in 1999, Polish president Lech Walesa said, "I never had enough opportunity to thank Lane Kirkland for his enormous contribution for our struggle for a better world."

As admirable as were Kirkland's global efforts, he was out of touch with the decline of unions within the United States and unwilling to admit to the problems. He, like Meany before him, saw the role of AFL-CIO senior management as the voice of labor to the federal government with institutional authority regarding labor's "foreign policy." AFL-CIO management officials were well positioned for that role in an impressive location very close to the White House.

Kirkland was coming up for reelection in 1995 when leaders of 11 of the largest unions announced their opposition to his policies and suggested that he resign. As if to document his failures, workers at Bridgestone-Firestone in Decatur, Illinois, had just voted to return to work after a 10-month strike without having received a single concession from management. The rise of Republican congressional power under Newt Gingrich and the loss of any hope for the prolabor legislative effort that had been initiated under President Bill Clinton—the Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations (the Dunlop Commission)—were other factors behind the opposition to Kirkland and his policies. Labor leaders were looking for a "new voice" who would put money into organizing at the grassroots to rebuild the American union movement.

Sweeney the Candidate

John Sweeney headed the "New Voices for American Workers" ticket with a platform that called for a shift in union priorities to massive additional resources and energy for both active organizing and political action. The movement sought to revitalize the labor movement by rebuilding a strong social movement using rank-and-file mobilization and ongoing involvement. Sweeney had the record to lead the movement. He rose through the ranks to become president of the Service Employees' International Union (SEIU) in 1980. Between 1980 and 1995 the SEIU's membership almost doubled, bringing it to 1.1 million.

Social movement unionism has had a checkered past, although successful social movements in the 1930s produced some of the best growth years for unions. The SEIU used the 1930s' methods of rank-and-file participation to contact prospective members. The movement included making contacts with community and church groups to create an environment that brought in members and kept local pressure on employers who might try to intimidate recruits. However, in 1995 organizing activities faced a much more complex world. Labor unions were facing the challenges of organizing a diverse workforce at home and an expanding global economy that included transnational competition for jobs.

Sweeney spoke at a press conference of the need to recreate a labor movement "that will improve the lives of working people, not just protect them from current assaults. Our members need to see a labor movement that is a powerful voice on behalf of their interests and unorganized workers need to see a movement that can make their lives better." He set organizing the unorganized at the top of an eight-point New Voices platform. Sweeney said he would allocate "at least $20 million to organize over a short period of time." He was planning to accomplish the party goals "by creating a strong grassroots political voice for working people . . . that promotes a clear agenda for workers' rights."

On diversity, the New Voices 1995 platform called for a labor movement that "speaks for and looks like today's workforce" and opens "new opportunities for women, minorities and young people." Sweeney's union could boast of a very successful effort to organize largely immigrant Latino workers in California in a promotion dubbed Justice for Janitors. The SEIU's local Justice for Janitors campaign in the Los Angeles area won a contract that included health benefits and paid vacation in addition to a wage of up to $6.80 an hour for its 8,000 Latino workers from a major building cleaning contractor in 1990. It also led to the signing up of 30,000 building cleaners across the country between 1990 and 1995, bringing the total membership in Justice for Janitors up to 180,000.

Running Mates

Sweeney's running mates included Richard Trumka for the position of secretary-treasurer and a female candidate, Linda Chavez-Thompson, for a new position as executive vice president. Trumka was president of the United Mine Workers of America, and Chavez-Thompson was an area vice president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The Donahue slate also included a female candidate, Barbara Easterling, who was selected to succeed Donahue as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer when Kirkland resigned. When Donahue boasted of having a female on his slate, Sweeney countered that he not only had a female, but a female of color. Sweeney pledged to bring "many new public faces and voices" into the labor movement.

Linda Chavez-Thompson is a Mexican American, born in Lubbock, Texas. The daughter of a sharecropper, she started her labor career at the age of 10, picking cotton for 30 cents an hour. Before the Sweeney election, no woman or Hispanic had ever held such a high office in the AFL-CIO. At the time, women represented 40 percent of the union workforce and Hispanics 8 percent. She identified minority recruitment as one of her goals.

Sweeney the President

In October 1995 Sweeney won the election by a wide margin to become president of the AFL-CIO, a federation of 78 unions. He started immediately to live up to his campaign goals by increasing organizing expenditures. Sweeney also began working to improve labor's image and to incorporate more women and minorities. He proposed to change the role of the more than 600 Central Labor Councils (CLCs), the diverse constituency groups that include the Coalition of Black Trade, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and more. Sweeney charged the CLCs to become "the building blocks and foundation of our revitalized movement."

Top staff positions went to younger and more aggressive unionists. In 1996 Sweeney oversaw the launching of the very successful Union Summer program, a four-week educational internship program of the AFL-CIO that teams students with community activists to develop skills for union organizing drives and campaigns for workers' rights and social justice. The program includes visiting workers in their neighborhoods, participating in direct union actions, and educating the public to rally support for worker's rights issues.

There is no one measure for success of the revitalization campaign begun with the election of Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO. However, where the slippage of the number of union members compared to the total workforce had been a big factor in the 1995 election, there was some good news at the end of 1999. Union membership grew by over 265,000 that year, the largest single year of growth since the 1970s, just before the start of the decline.

Key Players

Chavez-Thompson, Linda (1944-): Chavez-Thompson is the first woman and the first Hispanic to be elected an officer in the AFL-CIO. In 1993 she was elected to the AFL-CIO Executive Council. In 1995 she was elected to the newly created position of executive vice president, making her the highest ranking woman in the union labor movement at that time.

Kirkland, J. Lane (1922-1999): Kirkland was president of the AFL-CIO from 1979 until his forced retirement in 1995. During his tenure as president, he oversaw the return of the United Auto Workers (1981), the Teamsters (1988), and the United Mine Workers (1989) to the AFL-CIO roster. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike that occurred in 1981 contributed to the decline of the union movement, and the percentage of union membership in the workforce declined during Lane's time as president.

Meany, George (1894-1980): Meany was president of the AFL-CIO from the time the two organizations merged in 1955 to 1979, when he retired. He rose through the ranks to become president of the AFL in 1952. During his tenure as president of the AFL-CIO, Meany was not interested in promoting union organizing drives to gain membership as long as uniform wage benefits remained in the well-organized industries.

Sweeney, John J. (1934-): In 1995 Sweeney rose from the ranks to0be elected president of the AFL-CIO in the first contested election ever held by the organization. At that time, he was in his fourth term as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), where he had seen the membership double to 1.1 million between 1980 and 1995.

Trumka, Richard L. (1949-): Trumka was elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in 1995. Prior to that, he served on the AFL-CIO Executive Council, starting in 1989. When he was elected secretary-treasurer in 1995 Trumka was in his third term as president of the United Mine Workers (UMW). At the UMW, Trumka had led two major coal strikes.

See also: AFL, CIO Merge; PATCO Strike.



Katz, Harry C., and Richard W. Hurd. Rekindling the Movement: Labor's Quest for Relevance in the 21st Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.


Bernstein, Aaron. "A New Deal at the AFL-CIO?" Business Week, 30 October 1995.

——. "Can a New Leader Bring Labor Back to Life?"Business Week, 3 July 1995.

Graff, James L., et al. "The Battle to Revive the Unions."Time, 30 October 1995.

Regan, Mary Beth. "Shattering the AFL-CIO's Glass Ceiling." Business Week, 13 November 1995.


AFL-CIO Web site [cited 11 September 2002]. <http://www.aflcio.org/>.

Additional Resources

Buhle, Paul. Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999.

Sweeney, John J. America Needs a Raise: Fighting for Economic Security and Social Justice. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.

—M. C. Nagel

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Sweeney Elected President of AFL-CIO

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