An Interview with Former AFL-CIO President John Sweeney

by Matt B. on May 18, 2010

This interview was conducted on March 22 at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

You recently stepped down after 14 years at the helm of the AFL-CIO.  In your mind, what should the major goals of the labor movement in America be over the next couple of years?

…The labor movement, under the leadership of President Richard Trumka, is preparing to do a lot more mobilization of rank-and-file workers. We probably had our best political program in the history of the AFL-CIO in the 2008 elections, because we were able to mobilize at the grassroots level hundreds of thousands of workers actively involved in campaigns. I think that the mobilization of rank-and-file workers has to be an ongoing practice throughout the whole year, not just be brought together shortly before elections, and that it shouldn’t be just a part of a political program but it also should be part of a legislative program and work on issues.

Last night’s victory [the passage of health care reform legislation] was a credit to rank-and-file workers who supported the President’s health program, and they actively engaged people, both union folks as well as folks who aren’t organized, on this issue and mobilized a great effort in terms of the number of workers that they have visited with.

We have an entity called Working America that was created four years ago. That entity has been able to organize three and a half million workers who live in communities where they have friends who are union members. In canvassing their homes, we have been able to build their support for being part of an organization. With polling and focus groups, we find that their issues are the same issues that are the priorities of organized workers; health care, of course, is one of them.

Jobs is a big concern of workers. People are angry and they don’t think that they have been treated fairly throughout this whole economic crisis, and they want to see more attention paid to issues such as health care and jobs and pension security, as well as education and training. There is tremendous interest in education programs and up-scaling workers for new jobs.

They are hurt by what has occurred, in terms of the outsourcing of jobs, as a result of bad trade policies and also the greed of corporations in looking for the cheapest possible deal in whatever country, the lowest possible wages in those countries. That has resulted in a loss of employment of millions of workers and it has essentially had the greatest impact, or the worst impact, on the middle class.

We see good jobs with good benefits just being abolished. The auto industry is as classic an industry as you could use as an example. But it’s not just the auto industry – it’s the steel workers; it’s the other industrial unions and union workers who have been affected. But that also has an impact in local communities, on public employees; it’s not just private sector. If the revenues for a city or a state are affected by the loss of industry and business, that impacts on public services, so that’s a really big concern.

You mentioned trade policy just a second ago. If you could advise President Obama about trade policy, what would you tell him?

Well, we had raised the trade policy as one of the issues that we were concerned about during the campaign, and the President has been very responsive on the need for reviewing our trade agreements and seeing what changes have to be made. Basically, we have to insist that workers’ rights and environmental protections, or human rights questions, are all part of what has to be addressed in our future trade agreements. We can’t be going for the cheapest possible deal for our trading practices.

We’re not only concerned about the impact it has on workers in our own country, but we’re also concerned about our trading partners – countries like Colombia, where they have a high record of assassinations of folks who are active in their own country on behalf of human rights and the atrocious murders and assassinations that have taken place with lack of enforcement of those who are the culprits in these situations. That’s just one example.

And it’s taxes, not just trade policy – our tax policies that have to be reexamined, and companies can’t be given an advantage for moving work out of the United States into another country with special tax considerations for them. If anything, we should be rewarding the corporations or businesses that can develop new jobs here in the United States.

I don’t know much about this area.  How did such tax credits for outsourcing get created in the first place?  In whose interest is that kind of policy, and who would be opposed to repealing those kinds of tax credits?  In other words, what’s driving tax credits for outsourcing?

What’s driving that behavior is greed.  It’s bad economic policy to be rewarding companies who are taking sources of employment out of our own country and sending them off to a country where the basic human rights are violated. Also, it’s not the right thing to reward those companies and those businesses to the detriment of workers here in the United States.

But I’m trying to imagine what argument congressmen or senators would make to sell this kind of policy to the public. How do they go about doing that? How do they go about selling the public on the idea that they’ve given tax credits to companies to move overseas?  I would think they’d be just the widest and fattest target for organizations like yours.

They are so vague…about…reducing prices on a product, about it being a better way of production. The lies that are told in all of the publicity on these situations is just so horrible, and we have to do a better job at educating the public at large. We don’t have to educate our members because they are living in the communities that are impacted by these bad trade policies.

Politicians just have to be convinced that this is bad for the country. We have tried to do exactly what you’re saying, in terms of holding politicians accountable on these issues, and we have been very successful. But there’s no question about it; we have to do a better job. I’m confident that more and more workers, and the average person, have become more mindful of how important it is to have good, fair trade agreements. We want to see the best trading agreements that we possibly can see. We realize how important trade is for our country, for the economy of our country. But it has to be fair trade, good trade.

We saw with NAFTA, as an example, the North American Free Trade Agreement, what happens when a country like Mexico has the advantage of a trade agreement. Sure, they’re interested in creating more business for their country, having better employment for their workers. But NAFTA was basically a failure. It lasted, or it was beneficial to Mexico for a couple of years, but those jobs are gone now. They’re not in Mexico. They’re off in Asia or in the developing world, wherever it might be. It is the same old situation that we see with the greed of individual corporations and their desire to get the cheapest possible deal.

You seek to ensure that human rights considerations, labor standards, and environmental concerns are all factored into our trade policy.  Are you willing to consider the possibility that even if we were able to include all of those factors in our trade deals, there might still be some industries here in America that wouldn’t be able to compete globally in the long term?

Well, it’s something that has to be watched, and it’s important that trade agreements be enforced. I think that the auto industry, which is a classic example, shows the vision of the autoworkers’ unions, in terms of what they have been able to achieve in their recovery, as far as it might be, of the auto industry, and the opening of…former plants, as well as new plants. I mean, there are some good examples of new industry in the manufacture of parts…that the union and management are working on, not just in Michigan but in other states around the country.

One final question: You talked about organizing, and particularly Working America. As you may know, Marshall Ganz, a professor here, was one of the architects of the Obama organizing effort, and particularly some of the community organizing strategies the campaign used to devolve power down the chain and empower local organizers. I’m curious to know whether the AFL-CIO or other labor organizations are adopting some of the same strategies or looking at the Obama campaign as an example of new and potentially innovative ways to organize?

Sure….I’ve known Marshall going back to those days of the farm workers, and I admire his good work, especially in terms of helping workers organize. I believe that the labor movement has to put more resources into organizing, that we have to educate and train young people in organizing, or convince them that it can be a very satisfying job. There are some changes that are taking place in many individual unions, in terms of…organizing programs.

I think that there has to be a greater focus on young workers. Liz Shuler, the new Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO spoke at one of the study group sessions and outlined our plans for helping young workers organize and involving young workers more, once they become members, in actual union activities.  We plan to engage them and seek their thoughts…on how they see the labor movement and what changes they think should be made to address young people’s issues and concerns.

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