Sweeney lectures about unions
By SAM DERHEIMER
The labor movement wants a better image, and John Sweeney, president of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations [AFL-CIO], said Wednesday he believes he can create that image through education.
"There's a role for all of us to play," Sweeney said. "We have to do a better job at educating people about what the labor movement is about. And that's a big part of what this [lecture] is about."
Sweeney focused on the benefits unions can provide for the working class, and talked of building an America, "…where the benefits of the greatest economic country in the world are shared by all, instead of hoarded by the few."
On average, union workers are paid 32 percent more than non-union workers, Sweeney said. Furthermore, he emphasized the advantages unions create for what he called the "forgotten majority," those underprivileged and uneducated members of our society left behind in a "cruel, winner-take-all world."
Sweeney spoke about the AFL-CIO's programs to ensure a safe and stable working environment. His primary goals as a labor leader are to provide an education to workers who probably would not be able to attain one on their own, he said.
He also urged students to develop a better understanding of what labor organizations can do.
"You, as students, and future business leaders, need an improved perception of the labor movement," he said, expressing hope that as future business presidents and officials, students who better understand how labor unions operate will be more willing to work with them later.
Students at the lecture generally responded positively.
"It was a very informative lecture on an important issue," said Zahm Hall junior Ryan Hodge. "The labor movement is something that affects everyone. We need to be informed on the direction it is taking for the future."
O' Neill Hall freshman, Matt Barr had a slightly different perspective .
"It was somewhat inspiring," he said. "Sweeney definitely showed the role unions serve in this country, but it was kind of an `in the moment' kind of thing. I don't have any need for a union right now, and so it's like, `Tomorrow, everything's going to be the same whether I support the unions or not.'"
If he could to plant a more positive image of labor unions in students' minds, Sweeney said, that image would remain whether they felt its immediate relevance or not.
In the future, when students deal with unions in a business setting, cooperation could be more forthcoming as a result of that early education, and that means better results for workers, he contended.
Ultimately, Sweeney said, he wants protection for those forced to live paycheck to paycheck.
"For many," said Sweeney, "unions are the only way out. And we want to make sure the government works as hard to protect them as it does to protect corporate executives."
The transforming of unions into significant political forces was also a key aspect to Sweeney's new image of the labor movement. Envisioning a world of social and economic justice, the AFL-CIO head called for an end to a nation "where the moneyed few make all the decisions," and the wage and wealth gap between classes is the largest in the world.
Labor unions, he argued, will assure that thousands of "forgotten" individuals will not be left behind.
"People shouldn't have to work so hard, and so long, that they end up with no time to spend with their families," said Sweeney.
"For God's sake," he said, "why can't we protect human beings; that's all we're asking."
Sweeney's lecture was titled, "Why Workers Will Need Unions in the 21st Century" and was the 22nd annual Steel Workers Lloyd McBride Lecture at Notre Dame.
Sweeney is the third president of the AFL-CIO, and he started his career in the labor movement with the International Ladies Garment Workers.
He later moved on to the Service Employees International Union, which saw membership increase from 625,000 to 1.1 million in his 16 years as president.
Sweeney's book, "America Needs a Raise," has been praised by business leaders.
All News Stories for Thursday, September 9, 1999