Archive: November, 2010

Waking John Sweeney

John Sweeney is the the most self-confident man I ever met.  I don’t know whether it comes from his faith or his family, or maybe a combination of both, but he’s never seemed threatened by time, events, or people. When he was elected president of SEIU in 1980, he reached outside the labor movement and began building a staff that over the next 25 years would help transform the union into the second-largest in America.  They were young, many of them women, the kinds of rascally radicals most labor leaders wouldn’t hire for fear they would someday attempt a coup. Sweeney made a fetish of recruiting them. (More)

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Waking John Sweeney

John Sweeney isn’t known for his sense of humor, but friend and comrade Bill Ragen recently reminded me of a Justice for Janitors rally and march in downtown Los Angeles in 1989 when  Sweeney let loose the Leprechaun in his soul.

 We’d gathered in Pershing Square at Noon or so. Latinos come more easily to collective action than us Gringos and the joint was, as they say, jumping.  As president of SEIU, Sweeney was to be the featured speaker to a crowd of maybe a thousand fired up janitors (at least that was what we told the press, and for once, I actually think we were pretty close).  We had a right-on translator at work and Bill had heeded my plea to set up a rock concert sound system, powered by a portable generator with an hour’s worth of fuel.  Sweeney was preceded by the rants of several greatly agitated janitors, then by AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, his immaculately-dressed wife, Irina, at his side, and finally by Jack Henning, the silver-haired, patrician Secretary-Treasurer of the California AFL-CIO. (More)

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Waking John Sweeney

John Sweeney’s wife of 48 years, Maureen, is a slender, Titian-haired colleen who grows more gracious and beautiful with every passing year.  She and John are both very private people, so I was flattered when she agreed to an interview the afternoon of John’s historic election as president of the AFL-CIO.  My first question was how did she and John meet and she told me the story of John’s sister recruiting her to work in his campaign for Democratic Party District Leader, which is New York-speak, I think, for ward healer.  She reminisced a bit about walking picket lines as a school teacher in Manhattan. When I asked where they went on their first date, she replied matter-of-factly, “to a union dinner.” (More)

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November 18, 2010

Waking John Sweeney

Reformer Ron Carey was the new president of the Teamsters and struggling through a badly split first convention.  Sweeney was scheduled to address them on the third day and in the course of gathering topical color for his speech, I learned the first two days had been pretty rough. So I took it on myself to see Sweeney and tell him he ought to take a security person with him (he customarily traveled alone).  He chewed his tongue a little, looked up from the pile of papers he was fondling and said, “What about you?”  “Whaddaya mean, what about me?”  “I mean why don’t you go with me and be my security.  We can ride the train up to Philadelphia, have a drink on the way back, do some catching up.” (More)

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