Union Gangsters: John Sweeney

The man who made the union gangster way a science.

Don’t miss FrontPage’s other Union Gangsters profiles featuring Craig Becker, Richard Trumka, Stephen Lerner, Andy Stern, Jimmy Hoffa Jr. and Daniel De Leon.

Like so many of his fellow union leaders, John Sweeney is more than willing to adopt thuggish tactics to get his way.

Sweeney grew up in a labor family with a father who was a New York City bus driver and a mother who worked as a maid. In 1957, he got his first union job with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union [ILGWU]. Three years he joined the New York City Local 32B of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), working his way up to president of the organization in 1980. During his stint as SEIU president, which lasted until 1995, Sweeney implemented the kind of aggressive tactics that have since been adopted by other unions. Such tactics included planned stoppages of traffic in major cities, and the beginning of "corporate campaigning," which consists of coordinated intimidation strategies designed to destroy a company's reputation if it does not accede to union demands.

After leaving the SEIU, Sweeney served as president of the powerful American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) from 1995 to 2009. Serving with him was Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka and Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson. The trio called itself the "New Voice," and the first indication of where that voice intended to take the union occurred during the 1995 campaign when Sweeney refused to repudiate civil disobedience as an organizing tactic. At his inaugural address, Sweeney remained true to that prospect. "We will use old-fashioned mass demonstrations, as well as sophisticated corporate campaigns to make workers' rights the civil rights issue of the 1990s," he promised.

In 1996, the union introduced its "Union Summer Program" which was an effort to tap into radical leftist college students who were organized under the banner of United Students Against Sweatshops. The program was designed to teach students how to "develop skills for union organizing drives and other campaigns for workers rights and social justice." Materials included in the program included a pledge called the "Working Class Commitment," a testament to class warfare: "I will remember to be proud that we do the world's work, that we produce the world's wealth, that we belong to the only class with a future, and that our class will end all oppression." Thus began Sweeney's attempt, as noted in his 1996 book, America Needs A Raise, to build a "social movement" not just a labor union. It was a social movement in which Sweeney began making favorable comparisons to Euro-style socialism.

That socialist impulse took an even harder turn to the left in the late '90s when power trio member Richard Trumka was called to testify in a money-laundering case involving the Teamsters Union. When the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, one of the conditions was that outright communists in the CIO would be purged. In 1957, the AFL-CIO instituted a rule requiring the removal of any union official invoking his Fifth Amendment rights in court. During this case Trumka did exactly that and Sweeney responded--he removed the ban on communists joining the union rather than get rid of Trumka.

The move was hardly surprising. Sweeney himself is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, a communist front group in the United States.

Sweeney retired as AFL-CIO president in 2009. He ws succeeded by Trumka. On February 15, 2011 Sweeney was one of 15 people awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by Barack Obama. One is left to wonder whether the fact that the AFL-CIO under Sweeney's leadership donated more than $200 million to Barack Obama's 2008 election campaign was a contributing factor.

Yet the defining piece of Sweeney's legacy came to light as a result of a court case filed against the SEIU by catering company Sodexo Inc. on March 17, 2011 in the Eastern District of Virginia. Introduced into evidence was a work entitled "Contract Campaign Manual" written by the labor leader himself. The first two sentences of "Part 3" give one an idea of how Mr. Sweeney intended to "persuade" companies to hire union workers. "It is not enough to be right," Sweeney writes. "You need might as well."

The exercise of such "might" was apparently egregious enough that Sodexo filed the suit under the auspices of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The 1970 statute was written with the aim of eliminating "the infiltration of organized crime and racketeering into legitimate organizations operating in interstate commerce."

The litigation was a response to SEIU's "Clean Up Sodexo" campaign, a thinly-veiled attempt to intimidate the company into collecting union dues without having fair elections. This strategy outlined in the manual represented a departure from labor's traditional method of organizing workers on a location-by-location basis. The new strategy was simple: put enormous pressure on corporate boardrooms via a series of strong-arm tactics, and the employers would eventually submit to having all of their workers organized in one shot.

What kind of tactics? The complaints alleged by Sodexo sound like an episode of the Sopranos. Sodexo claimed SEIU officials threatened to harm the business unless it gave into union demands. They ostensibly carried through on those threats, which included:

  • Throwing plastic roaches onto food being served by Sodexo USA at a high profile event;
  • Scaring hospital patients by insinuating that Sodexo USA food contained bugs, rat droppings, mold and flies;
  • Lying to interfere with Sodexo USA business and sneaking into elementary schools to avoid security;
  • Violating lobbying laws to steer business away from Sodexo USA, even at the risk of costing Sodexo USA employees their jobs; and
  • Harassing Sodexo USA employees by threatening to accuse them of wrongdoing.

Sodexo also claimed monetary damages, noting that the SEIU's actions cost the company a contract with the Department of Defense worth $765 million, and contended that they had interfered with other contracts as well. If such allegations were proven, the monetary damages might have been great enough to put the SEIU out of business.

On July 27th, the case took a turn for the worse--for the SEIU. U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton rejected the union's attempt to have the racketeering lawsuit dismissed because Sodexo "has stated a claim upon which relief can be had." In a show of bravado, the union released a statement. “The ruling means that SEIU will have an opportunity to prove the facts about our organization, our members, and our work regarding Sodexo,” the labor group said in the release. “We look forward to proving what this campaign is really about and defending our freedom to speak out against abuses by corporate entities.”

In reality, the ruling was a critical turning point because it allowed Sodexo to proceed with formal discovery, giving them the right to examine a treasure trove of union information, including union letters, emails, internal memos and union finances. In other words, as incriminating as John Sweeney's Contract Campaign Manual was in and of itself, it might have represented the tip of a far more thuggish, and possibly corrupt, iceberg.

Apparently union leaders must have thought so. On September 15th, Sodexo announced they had reached a settlement with the SEIU, in which they agreed to drop their RICO suit in exchange for the union ending its Clean Up Sodexo campaign.

Perhaps the most enlightening part of this case was the fact that the Manual was introduced as evidence. Even if one assumes Sweeney wrote it in his last year at SEIU, it means that these tactics of intimidation have been employed for at least the last 16 years and possibly far longer. Some of Sweeney's chapter titles require no explanation. To wit: Escalating Pressure Tactics; Pressure on Individual Officers; Helping Reporters Do Their Jobs; Legal/Regulatory Pressure; Political/Legislative Pressure; Workers' Role in Researching Pressure Points; Keeping Strikes Strong; and Organizing Successful Rallies and Demonstrations.

Such calculated thuggery has now become routine, with a new wrinkle: union mobs now feel entitled to air their grievances in front of the private residences of individuals they see as impediments to their agenda. And as most Americans are slowly becoming aware, unions and their tactics have been integrated into the OWS movement. In Oakland, such tactics are beginning to bear fruit: on Wednesday, the nation's fifth busiest harbor was effectively shut down, while banks and other businesses were vandalized. By early Thursday morning, police in riot gear were battling protesters who pelted the officers with chunks of concrete, bottles--and molotov cocktails. According to City Administrator Deanna Santana, the initial protests included about 5 percent of city workers, and according to Oakland Unified School District spokesman Troy Flint, 18 percent of the district's 2,000 teachers didn't show up for work. Whether any of them were part of the more violent protests remains to be seen, when those arrested are processed.

Smart labor leaders would disassociate themselves from the OWS mobs while there is still time to do so. Yet as one peruses Mr. Sweeney's Manual, a disquieting idea arises: coordinated intimidation may no longer be a last resort option for addressing union grievances. It may very well be the only option in the eyes of today's union leaders. Leaders who have adopted the codified intimidation tactics of John Sweeney.

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