AFL-CIO Dinner

Pittsburgh, 14/09/2009

Sisters and brothers, retirement dinners can be strange affairs. When I left the British TUC to go to the European TUC, we had a splendid dinner, like this, in London. By the way, a guest of honour was Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United. That won’t mean much to you Americans, but to anyone who follows the real football – just the rest of the world – it means a lot.

That night, I listened to many kind words, exaggerated tributes, recitations of claimed victories, gentle irony on things which went less well.

As I remarked to my wife, it was a bit like listening to your own obituary, but with one big difference, you get the right of reply. John, if you so choose, you get the right of reply tonight.

My task tonight is to lead and, then, orchestrate some reflexions on the Sweeney era and to convey very warm wishes and solidarity to Rich and the new team. To provide guidance to other speakers, and to myself, I offer the following cautionary tale.

My father was at a formal dinner at Manchester Town Hall. In England, it is the custom at a certain point to propose a toast to the Queen – ladies and gentlemen, the Queen. This particular evening, the Lord Mayor took at least ten minutes – beautiful, gracious etc. The audience started shouting “sit down” – the British after a few drinks are not always courteous.

My father heard the Town Clerk tell the Lord Mayor; “in future, when you propose the loyal toast to the Queen, the less said the better.”

At another formal dinner shortly afterwards, the Lord Mayor proposed the toast as follows: ‘ladies and gentlemen, the Queen. The less said about her, the better!”

So like Lincoln at Gettysburg, we are going to keep it short.

I have come especially to Pittsburgh to take part in these tributes instead of going to the Congress of my old organisation which is being held this week in Liverpool. It is the first TUC Congress I have missed since 1971. That is the mark of my esteem and affection for John and the AFL-CIO.

Of course, dealing with the AFL-CIO is sometimes like Winston Churchill’s description of dealing with the Americans. Churchill said: “you can always rely on the Americans to do the right thing – after they have exhausted all the other possibilities”.

John came to this job in controversial circumstances, challenging respected friends and colleagues who ran the Federation then. It was a bold, daring, even a dangerous move but it reflected John’s determination to set a new path for the AFL-CIO. He has never feared setting out new paths.

He has wrestled – like we all have – with the challenges of organising, how to make trade unions as natural for our children and grandchildren, and for women and migrants, as it has been for us and our fathers. That challenge now passes to Rich and the new team.

And as economic conditions resemble the 1930’s, as our arch enemy, de-regulated financial capitalism has a cardiac arrest, and is on life-support from taxpayer, we can generate a new renaissance of trade unionism, as happened in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The chance is there. We can take it. Change we can.

And that what makes the split in the American labour movement so disappointing. What was all that about? Disunity gives comfort only to our enemies; it diverts energy, and I have watched it take a toll on John. I know his dearest wish would be to have healed the wounds before he leaves, and to have re-established all the major American unions within the great family of the AFL-CIO. I wish Rich well with that historic task.

The political work of the AFL-CIO under John has gone very well. Despite the disasters of the Bush years, I have observed the rise and rise of American labour’s influence in elections – Presidential, Congressional and State. Presidents Clinton and Obama, and Vice Presidents Gore and Biden have acknowledged this publicly and generously, as indeed they should. I congratulate you on these achievements under John’s leadership and of course the peak achievement of securing the election of President Obama – which was an inspiration to trade unionists, the world over, not just to Americans.

Internationally, John’s contribution and influence has been enormous. President of the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD, leading supporter of unity at international level and a major mover behind the establishment of the ITUC, key advocate at countless meetings with heads of government, and international institutions – a man whose rises to all occasions.

And there are many here tonight who owe to the AFL-CIO thanks for practical solidarity and help, especially in the developing world, and in nations which have emerged, blinking, into the light of freedom after years of oppression. John has never been an isolationist, always an internationalist.

I’m sure too that there are too many here who are grateful to Barbara Shailor and the Solidarity Center team.

Now the clock turns. As Rich said nicely yesterday, John becomes a labour leader at large, and, with Maureen, takes at least some retirement. Other members of his team move on and I want to specially mention Bob Welsh, a skilled and faithful servant and a major, respected, too in his own right figure.

To Rich and the new team, you have great challenges at home – Employee Free Choice, health insurance for all, unification, to name but 3.

But I hope that in due course you can use your talents to take up the international challenges – spreading democracy, peace, human and trade union rights, climate change, regulating financial capitalism, tackling fair trade, helping the developing world, building up the transatlantic trade union alliance with unions in the EU and the rest of Europe, handling the emergence of new, great nations onto the world scene – nations which desperately need effective trade unions. Capital is global, and worker solidarity is global too.

So, I call on all guests here tonight to be upstanding and offer a toast to John Sweeney, to Rich Trumka, to their families, to their teams, and to all our friends in the AFL-CIO. The toast is “John + Rich”.