Greenhouse: John Sweeney the Organizer

Labor News

Reprinted from The American Prospect by on April 22, 2021.

Ai-jen Poo, co-founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was facing a quandary: She was making little headway getting the New York state legislature to enact a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. It was 2008, and the bill of rights—which called for overtime pay, one day off a week, and protections against sexual harassment—was having problems getting traction in Albany. So Poo decided to try a Hail Mary.

Why not invite AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, she thought, to Albany to help lobby? “I had read somewhere that his mother was a domestic worker, and at that time, the AFL-CIO was beginning to do outreach to understand non-union worker organizations.” Poo contacted Sweeney’s office in Washington. “We were thinking it would be a long shot,” she says. “Much to my surprise, he said yes.”

He arrived in Albany late one May morning. “He put on our bright yellow T-shirt that said, ‘Domestic Workers Deserve a Bill of Rights, Dignity, Respect and Recognition,’” Poo says. “He put it over his nice sports jacket. He wore that yellow T-shirt all day. He ate our crappy sandwiches, the ones in our premade lunch boxes. Then he walked the halls with domestic workers and visited legislators and spoke at our rally.”

John Sweeney, who stepped down from the AFL-CIO presidency in 2009, died on February 1 of this year at age 86. He was widely praised for his leadership in battling for union members and fighting to reverse the union movement’s decline. But it was little recognized that Sweeney, the nation’s top union leader, often went out of his way to help non-union workers. …

TAP 4/22

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Jeff Burman served on the Guild’s Board of Directors from 1992 to 2019. He is now retired. He can be reached at