Beloved family man and long-time labor leader, John J. Sweeney of Bethesda, Maryland, who led an era of transformative change over nearly 60 years in America’s labor movement, passed away on February 1, 2021, at his home due to complications from Covid-19.
Born May 5, 1934, in the Bronx, New York, to Irish immigrants, James Sweeney, a union bus driver, and Agnes McMorrow Sweeney, a domestic worker, John understood the struggles and pride of working people from a very young age. At home he was taught the values of family, church and union, all of which became lifelong beacons.
John graduated from Iona College in 1956 and joined the labor movement to fight for better wages and benefits for working people. He quickly rose through the ranks to become president of Local 32BJ in New York and in 1980, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). During John’s fifteen year tenure, he became a powerful national voice on equal rights, health care, family leave, immigration, and raising the minimum wage, and SEIU nearly doubled its membership from 625,000 to 1.1 million workers.
In 1995, John became only the fourth person elected President of the AFL-CIO after leading an insurgent campaign to revitalize the labor federation. As president, John pushed the labor movement to become more diverse and take on issues of civil rights, racial justice and gender equality. He built the AFL-CIO into a political powerhouse, electing pro-worker champions and fighting for union-friendly policies at all levels of government.
John retired from the AFL-CIO in 2009. His nearly 60 years in the labor movement were marked by his unwavering commitment to fighting for social and economic justice. He always led by example, with decency, humility and integrity. In 2011, John was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama. John was a true champion for working families and the world is measurably diminished by his absence.
John had a reputation, professionally and personally, for helping more people than anyone could count. He was as comfortable with a janitor as he was with a pope. For him, solidarity was a way of life and he lived out his values every day. John loved golf, gardening, politics, and charitable work, and was an active member of Church of the Little Flower, Bethesda, MD, for over 40 years.
John is survived by his loving wife of 58 years, Maureen; two children, John and Patricia (Travis Jones); his granddaughter, Kennedy; two sisters, Cathy Hammill and Peggy King (Ted); nieces, nephews and many other family members. John was preceded in death by his brother, James Sweeney.
There will be a private Mass of Christian Burial with Interment to follow.
As an expression of sympathy, memorial donations may be made to the “John J. Sweeney Scholarship Fund” at Iona College, online at ionaconnection.com/give, or by mail to Iona College, Joyce House, 715 North Ave., New Rochelle, NY 10801 (please note Sweeney Fund on check).