The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers mourns the loss of AFL-CIO President Emeritus John Sweeney, who died February 1, 2021 at the age of 86. Sweeney served five terms as AFL-CIO President, beginning in 1995, stepping down in 2009 to remain as President Emeritus.
“John Sweeney was a legend, plain and simple,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement announcing Sweeney’s death. “He was guided into unionism by his Catholic faith, and not a single day passed by when he didn’t put the needs of working people first. John viewed his leadership as a spiritual calling, a divine act of solidarity in a world plagued by distance and division.”
According to Sweeney’s biography on the AFL-CIO website, Sweeney’s first job in the labor movement was with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, which later merged with the Clothing and Textile Workers Union. He joined Service Employees International Union Local 32B in New York City in 1961 as a union representative. He was elected president of his local in 1976 and led two citywide strikes of apartment maintenance workers during the 1970s. He was elected as SEIU President in 1980, and under his leadership, SEIU nearly doubled in membership. He was serving as SEIU President when he was elected as AFL-CIO’s President.
In addition to serving in numerous labor movement leadership roles, Sweeney authored America Needs A Raise, Fighting for Economic Security and Social Justice, and co-authored Solutions for the New Work Force.
A full biography on President Emeritus Sweeney can be found here: https://aflcio.org/about/history/labor-history-people/john-sweeney
John Sweeney was a legend, plain and simple. He was guided into unionism by his Catholic faith, and not a single day passed by when he didn’t put the needs of working people first. John viewed his leadership as a spiritual calling, a divine act of solidarity in a world plagued by distance and division. The son of Irish immigrants, he used work as a way to directly apply his values, consistently exhibiting grit over flash and pursuing progress instead of posturing. He built SEIU into a powerhouse, doubling its membership, earning respect across the labor movement and in the halls of power. Throughout his storied life, John used the lessons he learned as a ground-level union leader to uphold dignity for all working people and expand human rights worldwide. I was proud to join his insurgent ticket in 1995, which recommitted the AFL-CIO to worker organizing and collective power. As president, John was a great leader and true innovator, driving the labor movement forward. We stand on that foundation today as we take on the challenges of inequality, systemic racism and much more. Former President Bill Clinton called John “a force for inclusion and activism.” I was blessed to call him a brother, a mentor and a friend. May God bless John’s memory, his family and the labor movement to which he devoted his life.