Philip J. Jennings: My Words in Tribute to John Sweeney

Philip J. Jennings: My Words in Tribute to John Sweeney

John Sweeney

How sad we are to receive the news that our union brother, John Sweeney, has been taken from us. I first met John over 30 years ago. He had an immense impact on life and on a generation of emerging leaders who mourn together at this sad loss. I send my sad condolences to Maureen, Tricia and John Junior.

He was elected president of SEIU in 1980, having spent 20 years as first a contract negotiator and then president of the legendary SEIU 32b local in New York. The local was a union power in New York and counted over 40,000 janitor members. A militant local that had negotiated a collective agreement that provided janitors with a decent life and dignity on the job.

I had joined the FIET secretariat in 1980 and in those years, as workplaces evolved and white-collar unions grew their base into the wider services sector, new horizons for union activity opened.

Relationships were established with John and his SEIU team and those new organizing horizons opened for FIET. We committed to the idea that our global union work should embrace janitors, cleaners and security guards. It was John and his lively and ambitious team that became a key force for FIET to develop and grow the sector. A FIET World Congress resolution in 1987 and the FIET Property Services sector were founded in 1988. He had set the wheels in motion to grow at home and grow union strength abroad.

John, a New Yorker, made his home in Bethesda, Maryland. In the Bible, Bethesda possessed a pool where miracles of healing occurred.

Under John’s leadership, the membership of SEIU doubled. It was considered a union miracle at a time of slipping union membership.

This organizing success was no miracle. His cure was to invest in organizing, increase the financial resources available, to trust and build a strategy and compose a brilliant, creative and committed team to deliver on the promise. A legacy that produced a further doubling of SEIU’s membership the following decade with Andy Stern at the helm.

John had the appearance of an old-school labor man from a bygone era but how those appearances deceived. He was soft spoken, until he made one of his speeches and then no microphones were required, he employed words that conveyed confidence and hope. He challenged and encouraged you to see the possibilities of international union work in a new light.

In the words of Seamus Heaney, “Believe that further shore is reachable from here.”

From a low membership base, the FIET Property Services sector rapidly grew, and today at UNI Global Union, the sector has well over 1 million members and a presence in each continent. They have become a global union power.

John insisted that organizing had to be front and center of our international work. With the increasing global reach of multinational companies, he wanted those organizing campaigns to go global and they did. Today Uni Global Union has several global agreements with the major property services companies.

That seemed a long way off when we began our work in property services. He encouraged us to take international solidarity campaigns beyond supportive messages to coordinated action across borders. John recognized the importance of working with and developing confidence with unions that had long-standing relations in those companies where the head office was based.

To bridge mutual understanding, he encouraged international union delegations to visit with American workers employed in the same multinational. It was always an eye-opener as another hitherto hidden side to corporate behavior was revealed. From anti-union busting campaigns, victimization and intimidation of employees, to third-class wages and unsafe conditions. He felt that if those delegations could walk in the shoes of his members, if even for a day, those human exchanges would build comprehension, sympathy and support.

John and his team introduced us to another style of campaigning, in the words of the late congressman and civil rights legend John Lewis to make ‘good trouble.’ A whole new playbook emerged from street theater, encounters with CEOs on golf courses and sometimes at church, to shareholder leverage campaigns. This included deep financial analysis, looking at who owned the properties, who invested in them and, of course, who the tenants were. During financial roadshows, CEOs were often surprised to field questions about why they treated their janitors, cleaners and security guards, many of whom immigrants were, so badly.

The aim was to make these invisible workers—who usually toiled through the night—more visible.

Always eager to take the concerns of these invisible workers to the public street demonstrations became a regular occurrence. I recall the SEIU Justice for Janitors campaign in Century City, Los Angeles, on June 15, 1990, when the SEIU called a demonstration to highlight the plight of the janitors. The march was met with a violent reaction from the notorious Los Angeles police. It became worldwide news.

The new economic reality was present: changing ownership structures, soulless portfolio entries in financial institutions’ balance sheets, demanding above market rates of return, slipping union contract coverage, new and international service providers. In this case, the Danish ISS was resisting the local organizing drive. The celebrated film “Bread and Roses” is based on the plight of these mainly immigrant workers. Today, UNI Global Union celebrates Justice for Janitors Day on June 15 each year. I know John was thrilled to know the day had gone global. We won local recognition and negotiated a global agreement with ISS.

On the opening day of the 1991 FIET congress in San Francisco, John and American union leaders led the 2000 delegates in a demonstration against the unfair labor practices of Apple computer against its own janitors. The march turned into an act of solidarity with the Russian people, as a coup occurred there during that weekend.

John dared us to act, pushed us beyond the customs of the day and it transformed organizations and lives and it was always conducted with a personal modesty and a warm human touch.

He wanted to know you and about you. He would pull my leg about my Welsh roots and say “How could Wales inflict me on the world?” I would say, “You live in Bethesda, that’s also a Welsh town.” I idly said to John, “You should visit Wales. We can do it in a day.” He accepted. My bluff was not to be called. He and Maureen took the dawn train from London to Cardiff. With my mother in tow and much talk of the Oscar winning movie “How Green was my Valley,” a tale of life in a Welsh mining village, off we went to the valleys of the Welsh Rhondda. They were immersed in the miners’ struggles, the mining towns, learned the history of the red flag at Cyfartha Castle, saw the site of the Aberfan tragedy and at lunch consumed the very Welsh lava bread (a Welsh delicacy made from seaweed). Our day concluding with an interview next to the Cardiff city center statue of Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the National Health Service born in those same Welsh mining valleys. They were both in London in time for dinner. He always asked how my mother and family was.

He took his ideas to the AFL-CIO and, as president, transformed it into an important political force. He built new alliances, he championed union organizing, migrant workers, the invisible workers, equality, the fight against racism and discrimination and for unions to be inclusive.

He brought a new focus and intensity to international trade union work and stressed the need for new economic alternatives to the neoliberal thinking of the day. He sought a more robust International Labor Organization, wanting them to take a bigger stick to breaches of freedom of association. He argued for a stronger social dimension to trade deals and sought for the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle to be a wakeup call to policymakers. He worked in close cooperation with the global union movement to tackle the 2008 financial crisis including exchanges with President Barack Obama.

In 2007, he hosted a major global union organizing event in Washington, D.C., with 200 people present. Ideas were shared about union growth, global campaigning and the struggle against anti-union laws. The ideas exchanged had a strong impact on me and those reflections resulted in a new strategic direction for Uni Global Union and the ‘Breaking Through’ plan as our organizing plan was and continues to be known. He took us to the Capitol to lobby political leaders for labor law reform and for the Employee Free Choice Act. We all hope that the Joe Biden labor reform promises will be delivered and when they are, we will remember John.

John had an immense impact on my life. He gave you confidence to keep improving and striving and never to forget why you were doing this work, whether it was in the streets with workers or at the G20 and Davos corridors of power, to “believe that further shore is reachable from here.”

Philip J. Jennings served as general secretary of UNI Global Union from 2000-2018 and general secretary of the International Federation of Commercial, Clerical, Professional and Technical Employees (FIET) from 1989-1999.

Kenneth Quinnell
Tue, 02/09/2021 – 12:13

Updated: February 15, 2021 — 11:55 pm