Thomas Donahue earned his first union card as an elevator operator in a Manhattan department store. John Sweeney got one tending graves in suburban New York.
This week the longtime friends battle for control of the labor movement in the first contested election since the AFL merged with the CIO 40 years ago. Sweeney claims to lead the incumbent Donahue with 55 percent of the vote.
Whatever the outcome, the 13.3-million-member federation will be led by an Irish-American from New York who worked his way up from humble roots and promises to make the institution a more active agent on behalf of working people.
“This is not about who heads up the AFL-CIO,” said Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union. “It’s about where the AFL-CIO is headed.”
Both men have pledged to intensify organizing efforts, work harder to defeat politicians who oppose workers’ issues, and open up the AFL-CIO hierarchy to more women and minorities.
There is a sense of urgency in the labor movement about the changes needed. Unions represent just 15 percent of all non-farm workers, down from a peak of 34.7 percent in 1954. And declining rolls have meant declining influence.
Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union, and a coalition of large unions forced Lane Kirkland to resign in August, saying he had failed to effectively defend workers in public or support union recruitment efforts during his 16-year tenure.
When Donahue succeeded Kirkland, he installed Barbara Easterling as the first female secretary-treasurer and began building a $20 million organizing fund to beef up labor’s dwindling ranks.
Sweeney’s coalition applauded these moves, but suggested they were right out of his campaign book.