Meet former AFL-CIO leader Thomas R. Donahue
A man whose vision, plans still energize unions
By DEBORAH A. MILES
Cognizant of the attack on unions by big money pushing for privatization and right-to-work legislation around the country, true unionists are working to revitalize the labor movement and value solidarity.
This isn’t the first time when a changing economic and political environment has forced the need for labor renewal. From 1979 to 1995, Thomas Reilly Donahue, the secretary-treasurer of the national, (then 13.6-million member) AFL-CIO, faced similar challenges. His mission was to organize new members with dynamism and militancy.
Donahue’s early life spawned his interest in advancing the labor movement. He was born in the Bronx September 4, 1928 and attended parochial schools. In 1949, he received a bachelor’s degree in labor relations at Manhattan College, which led him to a job as education director for Local 32B of the Building Service Employees International Union (BSEIU) in New York City.
He attended evening classes at Fordham University where he earned a bachelor’s law degree. From 1957 to 1960, he worked with an American labor program in Europe that helped unionists who had left communist countries.
In 1967, Donahue was appointed assistant secretary of labor for labor-management relations by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. At the end of Johnson’s term, Donahue returned to the renamed Service Employees International Union (SEIU) where he was elected first vice president and served a one-year term, followed by a four-year term.
Donahue became the executive assistant to AFL-CIO President George Meany in 1973, and after Meany retired in 1979, Donahue was elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, and was re-elected at seven AFL-CIO biennial conventions.
During those 16 years, Donahue was involved in virtually every part of the trade union movement. His strongest influence was in three areas: the campaign against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the rejuvenation of the union movement, and advancing workers’ rights.
The AFL-CIO, along with several other organizations such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, National Council of Senior Citizens, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and others, campaigned to kill the NAFTA Agreement as it would bump hundreds of thousands of workers down the economic ladder into underemployment and low wages.
Donahue frequently wrote letters to editors and op-ed pieces for leading newspapers with this message: “The jobs that are most easily exported to Mexico are not those of probate attorneys, stockbrokers, economists and editorial writers; they are the jobs of assembly line workers and others who least can afford a massive disruption in their work lives.”
NAFTA’s supporters had the stronger hand with former White House occupants, powerful business lobbyists such as the National Association of Manufacturers and Chamber of Commerce. NAFTA passed the House by a vote of 234-200 and the Senate by 61-38. It was signed by President Bill Clinton December 8, 1993, and went into effect January 1, 1994.
Nine years later, an Economic Policy Institute briefing paper reported that NAFTA’s effects contributed to “the rise in the U.S. trade deficit with Canada and Mexico through 2002 causing the displacement of production that supported 879,280 U.S. jobs. The loss of these jobs is just the most visible tip of NAFTA’s impact on the U.S. economy. It has also contributed to rising income inequality, suppressed real wages for production workers, weakened workers’ collective bargaining powers and ability to organize with unions, and reduced fringe benefits.”
Donahue chaired an AFL-CIO Committee on the Evolution of Work, a think tank for modernizing the federation’s structure. It published three reports: “The Future of Work,” “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions,” and “The New American Workplace: A Labor Perspective.”
The one with the greatest long-term effect on American unions, “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions,” was a blueprint for increasing labor’s influence with strategic and tactical innovations. It focused on new methods and approaches for representing and attracting new members. The New York Times called it a “frank study” and “the first of its type in the history of the nearly 35-year-old AFL-CIO.”
Under Donahue’s leadership, the AFL-CIO launched a number of initiatives inspired by the report such as recruiting “associate members” (feepayers), offering new financial services for union members and implementing new resources for organizing.
In 1995, after AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland retired, Donahue was elected to serve out the remaining months of Kirkland’s term. At the next AFL-CIO convention, in the first contested leadership election in the organization’s history, Donahue lost the presidency to John S. Sweeny, then president of SEIU.
It was a close, hard-fought campaign, but Sweeny had the support of larger unions, which had the majority of votes cast. Even in defeat, Donahue re-energized the movement to which he had devoted his life.
Donahue has been awarded several post-graduate honorary degrees from higher-learning institutions such as Notre Dame, Loyola University Chicago, Manhattan College, City University of New York, State University of New York, University of Massachusetts and the National Labor College.