AFL-CIO’s John J. Sweeney Fears "an American Nightmare!"

“Labor can not stand still. It must not retreat. It must go on, or go under.”

— Harry Bridges

Baltimore, MD – On April 8, 2008, the President of the AFL-CIO, John J. Sweeney spoke at the U. of Baltimore Law School, as part of its inaugural “Leaders in Labor” lecture series. He said that, as he travels around the country, he finds more and more people are “worried to death about the economy and tired of spending too many hours on the job for too little pay.” Mr. Sweeney underscored that the folks he has been speaking with “are distrustful of government and….see the American dream as a fading hope.” He said: “If we don’t take control, we will all be living out different versions of the American nightmare.” Mr. Sweeney emphasized: “Our country is headed in the wrong direction!”

A native of the Bronx, New York, Mr. Sweeney spoke to the audience about the influence his immigrant Irish parents, his Catholic education and union experiences had on him as a young man. He told how his father had worked as a bus driver out of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, then headed by the legendary Mike Quill. Mr. Sweeney recounted: “I grew up going to union meetings with my father and getting involved at a very young age in so many different activities as a volunteer.” At Iona College, he said he learned from the Brothers, [Congregation of Christian Brothers], “that economic and social justice are the goals we must all fight for, and that is what drew me into the Labor Movement.”

Before he delivered his prepared remarks, Mr. Sweeney lashed out at the pending U. S. Free Trade agreement with Columbia. (The AFL-CIO is strongly opposed to the measure). [1] Mr. Sweeney expressed his concerns about the gross “human rights” violations in that country, the threatened status of its unions, and the “murders” of those fighting for workers’ rights. At press time, it was revealed that former President Bill Clinton has received over “$800,000 in speaking fees” from a group that advocates a Free Trade pact with Columbia. As President, Bill Clinton was a willing shill for the GATT, NAFTA, CAFTA pushers, which led to the out sourcing of millions of middle class jobs. As a result of all the negative publicity over this issue, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) was forced to come out against any deal with Columbia. [2]

Mr. Sweeney said that the U.S. has been headed in the wrong direction “for more than 30 years. Workers’ productivity has increased by about 75 percent, but workers’ wages are frozen right where they were in 1973.”

Some pundits believe that one of the turning points in the ongoing saga of Labor was in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan crushed the striking Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATC0) workers. If Labor would have then taken a strong stand against Reagan–an arch pimp for Deregulation–including using the full arsenal of its power, it’s possible the country wouldn’t be in the sad predicament it is in today. [3] But, Labor didn’t take a stand. And, things have just gotten worse, with the fox taking over the chicken coop.

“Last year,” Mr. Sweeney continued, “even household income declined and many families had to draw down equity in their homes to make ends meet exacerbating our housing and credit crisis. Where did all the dough go? It went into swollen corporate profits and skyrocketing CEO’s salaries, while the pocketbooks of the middle class and the poor were pinched. Several years back, one of our most prominent economists called it, ‘the greatest transfer of wealth without a revolution in history.'” Meanwhile, according to a 2004 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study, “61 percent of U.S. corporation paid no taxes.”

The AFL-CIO is a federation of 56 national and international labor unions, headquartered in Washington, D.C. Mr. Sweeney has been its chief executive since 1995. He was formerly the president of the SEIU. The SEIU is a public service workers union with 1.9 million members. [4] It is supporting Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) for president. Its current leader, Andy Stern, led the SEIU out of the AFL-CIO federation back in 2005, in a heated dispute with Mr. Sweeney over policy. Also leaving the big tent, were the Teamsters, headed by James P. Hoffa, the son of the late Jimmy Hoffa. [5] The AFL-CIO currently has about 13 million members, which is about the same total it had in 1970. It has yet to announce its endorsement for president. I was shocked when Mr. Sweeney said that “twenty-five percent” of his members are Republicans.

“On Bush’s [President George W. Bush] watch,” Mr. Sweeney said, “poverty had increased 25 percent, the price of gasoline has risen from $1 a gallon to $3 a gallon, and it is sure to make it to $4–a price our president wasn’t able to comprehend. Now, our nation is almost as squeezed as working families themselves. [It has been] financing tax breaks for the wealthy and a war that is costing $12 billion a month, yet neglecting the priorities of our people.”

Continuing Mr. Sweeney asserted: “Nowhere is the damage to our society more evident than in health care. And the threat to our country and to our way of life is so big and so dangerous, that it compels us to work together with great urgency.” Citing all of the damning statistics, he added: “Health care should be a right.”

There are a lot of fine activists in the AFL-CIO at the federal, state and local levels. One of them was in the audience listening to Mr. Sweeney’s talk. I’m referring to Fred Mason, President of the MD/DC’s AFL-CIO. He has been a strong opponent of the Iraq War and a regular speaker at Peace rallies in the D.C. area. Mr. Mason was recently on the picket line, in Baltimore, MD, supporting the then-striking members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA). [6]

On another Labor front, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) plans to “shut down” all the West coast ports on May 1, 2008, to demonstrate its moral outrage and opposition to the U.S. wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. [7] I’m not surprised to note that Local 10 of the ILWU, based in San Francisco, is leading this charge. [8] Local 10 represents all the finest qualities of what a progressive union should look like in the Age of Bush and Cheney. It would surely please the ghost of the great Harry Bridges, one of the founders of the ILWU, to see Messrs. Sweeney, Stern and Hoffa, and other Labor chieftains, as well, on that picket line, on May 1st.

As for Labor itself, its story over the years reminds me in some ways of the tragic history of Native Americans and their bitter struggle against the early English settlers in this country. In the beginning, the Native American leaders thought they had time on their side and that they could easily, at their choosing, defeat the settler movement. They were wrong! The longer they waited to strike a decisive blow, the stronger the settlers became and the weaker their position grew, particularly in the region of the Chesapeake Bay. [9] Tribal rivalries also permitted the settlers to play one group off against another. In the end, the Native Americans lost and they paid a horrific price for their failed strategy. Will that eventually be the fate of Labor, too? Its past tendencies towards divisive splits, which has allowed the globalist schemers to dominate the playing field, doesn’t speak well about its future. Stay tuned.

Finally, Mr. Sweeney said there has been a “calculated war on workers” by corporate America for nearly 30 years. He insisted that this year, in the November election, “we have an opportunity to reverse these awful trends.” [10]










[10]. To view excerpts of Mr. Sweeney’s remarks, go to:;
and to listen to his comments, in the Q&A period, on the AFTRA/SAG dispute, go here: To view Mr. Sweeney taking a stand on behalf of locked-out Canadian workers, TNG-GWA, check out: