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Death of top labor leader, early PEF supporter John Sweeney mourned


John J. Sweeney receives prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, February 16, 2011. Photo courtesy of the NY Times

It took years of organizing and strategizing for New York leaders of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to help New York state employees hold the fateful election in 1978 that made PEF the bargaining agent for the state’s Professional, Scientific and Technical (PS&T) unit.  Until then PEF was really only an idea promoted by John Sweeney and George Hardy of SEIU, Al Shankar of AFT, and activists such as John Kramer who became the first president of PEF.

The last survivor of those men, Sweeney, died February 1, in Bethesda, Md. at the age of 86.  Hardy died in 1990, Shankar in 1997 and Kramer in 2005.

Sweeney was a native of the Bronx who grew up with his Irish-Catholic immigrant parents. As a child, Sweeney attended union meetings with his father  and it made an impression on him that set the course for his own life.   He was elected president of SEIU in 1980 and then president of the national AFL-CIO in 1995. He led the organization until retiring in 2009.

Sweeney is hailed today for his unwavering determination to bring women and minorities into organized labor as equal members and in top leadership positions, for his fights to support janitors and workers in the lowest paid positions, and for building powerful coalitions with civil rights, academics and religious groups.  That leadership was recognized when President Barack Obama presented Sweeney the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award in 2010.

PEF President Wayne Spence expressed the union’s sorrow and condolences to the Sweeney family.

“John Sweeney continues to inspire us. And as we lose yet another of the dynamic, visionary leaders who organized and mentored our union through its early years, we are reminded of the need for each of us to step forward and meet the many challenges that confront us today,” Spence said. “They showed us just what organized labor can accomplish when we are skillful and unflagging in our determination.”

Sweeney received a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1956 from Iona College, earning his way through school with jobs as a grave digger and a building porter.  After college, he worked for IBM as a researcher, but left to work for two-thirds less pay as a researcher for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.  From there, he went to SEIU and was elected president of the 45,000-member Local 32B in New York City in 1976, at the same time Hardy was directing SEIU to organize PEF.

Sweeney  and Shankar, who led the teachers union in New York City and later became AFT president, pressed their unions to help organize PEF. and then fight off a year of legal challenges from the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) which had previously represented PS&T unit employees.

The shock that CSEA, an independent union that operated more like an association, felt when it lost the PS&T unit to upstart PEF caused it to immediately affiliate with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which is part of the AFL-CIO.  CSEA then claimed that PEF and its two parent unions had violated the AFL-CIO’s rule that its member unions could not raid each other, but the AFL-CIO saw through that complaint, noting that CSEA should have affiliated with AFSCME before the vote.  Nevertheless, the remaining members of CSEA benefitted from affiliation with AFSCME,  which brought them into the AFL-CIO.

Shankar and Sweeney remained strong supporters of PEF throughout their lives and PEF continues to benefit from its affiliations with SEIU and AFT.  The two unions have often diverged on strategies regarding national labor issues, but their bonds to PEF have remained strong.