WASHINGTON — Awards are not what retired labor leader John Sweeney is about. Securing fair wages, preserving benefits and assuring safe working conditions remain a much higher priority even though he retired after 14 years as president of the AFL-CIO in 2009.
Still driven by the desire to improve working conditions and expand organized labor's reach, Sweeney, 80, recently was honored by the AFL-CIO with the George Meany-Lane Kirkland Lifetime Achievement Award for Global Workers' Rights.
Telling Catholic News Service recently that he was surprised by the honor, Sweeney readily pointed to the people and the experiences that guided his career as a forceful advocate for workers, from the Irish Christian Brothers at his alma mater, Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx borough of New York, to Gerry Shea, a longtime assistant at the AFL-CIO.
"I grew up learning much about the labor movement and it was much of the reason that motivated me and drew me to the issues of workers," Sweeney said.
Sweeney credits his Catholic faith, Catholic social teaching and his working-class Irish upbringing -- his father a New York bus driver, his mother a domestic worker -- for shaping his views that all people should be treated with fairness and dignity. He carried those views to the AFL-CIO, where he said he reached out to workers, many of them immigrants, not customarily part of the labor movement, including taxi drivers, day laborers and car wash workers. He also shaped the AFL-CIO's push for immigration reform long before it became a hot-button issue.
"From my earliest days I went to union meetings," Sweeney said in an interview at the offices of the AFL-CIO's Housing Investment Trust. "We lived up in the Bronx and my mother would send me off to meet my father's bus with his lunch with a couple of sandwiches. I would go to the union hall after he had finished work and I'd listen to the debate and guys intermingling with each other, talking the contract and rates. It was an atmosphere that really drove me in a stronger and stronger way to the labor movement."
The energy Sweeney felt in the union hall accompanied him to Sunday Mass. At church he would pick up pamphlets summarizing papal encyclicals and church teaching on human dignity. Sweeney recalled poring over the pamphlets, soaking up every nuance of Catholic social teaching and carrying them onto the crest of the burgeoning labor movement in the middle of the 20th century.
"I had an early instinct and interest and I was so hungry to learn more and more about it," said Sweeney, today a member of Little Flower Parish in Bethesda, Maryland, where he attends Mass daily and his wife of 52 years, Maureen, leads the praying of the rosary after the noon Sunday liturgy.
It would be years before Sweeney became a force in organized labor, however. After graduating from Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, with a degree in economics, he took a job as a clerk at IBM. But the job was hardly fulfilling and Sweeney soon became a researcher for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union at one-third the pay.
Sweeney later joined the staff of Local 32B of the Building Services Employees Union, forerunner of today's Service Employees International Union. He rose through the ranks of the union, gaining a national reputation for his advocacy of worker rights and eventually leading to his election as president of the AFL-CIO in 1995.
His seven terms as president were marked by efforts to expand organizing drives to curtail declining union membership and build a political operation to elect representatives, almost exclusively Democrats, who backed worker rights. Sweeney's emphasis on expanding labor's reach through organizing met with little success, however, and several national unions withdrew membership from the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win coalition.
The connection to Catholic social teaching led Sweeney to become an adviser to the U.S. bishops' domestic policy committee. For 20 years, until 2005, he advised the bishops on worker rights and even took them to task at times when they took a stance that he disagreed with.
"I was happy to work with the bishops. It was an opportunity to surface some of the issues that we thought were very important and also to answer questions that they had about what we were doing," Sweeney said.
John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, worked with Sweeney on workplace issues when he was secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Department of Social Development and World Peace.
"He's a great example of Catholic social teaching in action," said John Carr, "His faith very much has shaped who he is and what's he's done in the labor movement."
The July award ceremony also found Sweeney being honored by the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. Citing his role in the effort to end the years-long violent conflict in the British territory, Hugh McKenna, the university's pro vice chancellor presented Sweeney with the inaugural International Conflict Research Institute Global Peace and Social Justice Award for his work for peace in the once-troubled region.
The university has established a scholarship in Sweeney's name. Funded by the AFL-CIO and American labor organizations, the scholarship will be given to American students with union ties who aspire to become peace builders.
A recipient of the Medal of Freedom in 2011, Sweeney remains active in organized labor programs. He chairs the finance committee of the AFL-CIO's Housing Investment Trust, a $4.7 billion mutual fund using union pension funds to invest in affordable housing projects built by union construction workers and providing competitive returns.
Ever the union organizer, Sweeney still sees the need for workers to become organized to protect their rights and secure decent wages and working conditions.
"It is a monumental task," he told CNS.