Georgetown University Grants Highest Honor to President John Sweeney
by Tula Connell, Sep 4, 2009
Georgetown University President John DeGioia (right) awarded AFL-CIO President John Sweeney the university’s highest honor.
It’s rare for a major university like Georgetown to grant honorary degrees. But rare are individuals like AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Last night in a formal robe and gown ceremony followed by a celebration with Archbishop Donald Wuerl in Georgetown’s elegant Riggs Library, Georgetown University President John DeGioia conferred upon Sweeney the degree, Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.
Sweeney has dedicated his life to improving the lives of America’s working families, motivated in large part by his religious faith, one infused with the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church. Recognizing how Catholic doctrine influenced Sweeney’s life-long quest for justice and fairness for working people, DeGioia explained the importance of honoring Sweeney:
For many years, John Sweeney has worked to champion the dignity of workers—and work. And we at Georgetown take seriously the Catholic commitment to social justice for working people that has inspired John Sweeney’s remarkable career. That commitment has recently led us, with the help of the Kalmanovitz Charitable Foundation, to inaugurate a new effort here, the “Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor,” which we will formally inaugurate later this fall—and in whose work we hope to engage many of you in the years to come. Through its work, we hope to contribute, in our own way, to the tradition that John Sweeney has so well exemplified.
Throughout Sweeney’s more than 50 years of serving those who toil to earn their pay, he has joined his work in the labor movement with dedication to the faith community. He was an original member of the Catholic Common Ground Project, formed by the late Cardinal Bernardin. He participated in an a Vatican Social Justice conference and has been honored by Catholic Charities of Washington, and by Catholic universities such as his alma mater, Iona College in New York, and Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
Noted labor historian and Georgetown professor Joseph McCartin, who was instrumental in the process which led Georgetown to recognize Sweeney, read the degree citation, which states in part:
Driven by family, faith, and a profound sense of justice, John J. Sweeney has had an indelible impact on the struggle for workers’ rights in this country and around the world. His efforts, as president of the AFL-CIO and with the many other organizations he has served, have always championed the right of all people to be able to live and work with dignity.
From an early age, John Sweeney understood the importance of worker solidarity and its role in Catholic social teaching. He credits his beliefs to the values and ethics instilled in him by his parents, to his father’s participation in the local transit worker’s union in New York City, and to his Catholic education at Cardinal Hayes High School, Iona College, and Xavier Labor School. Taken together, this formative upbringing instilled in Mr. Sweeney a sense of purpose that he has carried with him throughout his whole life.
Sweeney, who has been president of the AFL-CIO for 14 years, will retire at our convention in Pittsburgh that begins September 13. The degree citation further describes his dedication, fueled by his faith, to achieving justice for working families:
Imbued with an understanding of social justice and the dignity of work that was informed by his Catholic faith, Mr. Sweeney took his first position as a labor organizer with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers—an organization that later merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. From there, he joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), eventually becoming its president in 1980.
During his 15 years of leadership, Mr. Sweeney increased membership by 75 percent, despite an extremely challenging political environment for unions at the time. In 1995, pledging a ‘New Voice,’ John Sweeney was elected President of the AFL-CIO.
Under Sweeney’s leadership, the AFL-CIO became the nation’s strongest grassroots political action movement to work for progressive change. He enlarged the labor movement by founding Working America, an affiliate for people without a union on the job that now has 3 million members. He forged new alliances with communities of faith, academics, students and more—and through new partnerships with worker centers and workers who are doing groundbreaking organizing on their own.
As Sweeney said in speech at Georgetown:
The American labor movement has been working fiercely to stop [our nation’s] slide into inequality and we are gaining traction in our struggle to turn around our economy and make it work for the many, instead of the privileged few… Our values call us to bring even greater good to society with universal health care, job creation, stewardship of our planet’s resources, stronger regulations governing our financial industry, trade laws respecting workers rights’ around the globe, new protections for today’s immigrants and federal legislation to restore workers’ freedom to form unions.
Saying faith “has been the bedrock of my life,” Sweeney said at the ceremony that the “Holy Father [the Pope] reaffirms our belief in government as a legitimate tool for correcting injustice and inequality, and for regulating business. He writes: ‘The market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak.’
He also reinforces the spiritual teaching that society should honor work—work is a way of worshipping God and participating in God’s ongoing act of creation. Honoring the dignity of work is the core of our shared support for free labor unions, for the absolute right of workers to join together and bargain collectively, and the absolute obligation of corporations to honor those rights and hold themselves to higher standards of social responsibility.
As someone who has had the honor of working with President Sweeney for more than 18 years, it is my turn to recognize AFL-CIO President John Sweeney for holding me, and many of us in the labor movement, to these higher standards of social responsibility.