Working Papers

Why Lead Labor?

Projects and Pathways in California Unions, 1984-2001

John Sweeney’s election to the presidency of the AFL-CIO in 1996 sparked a major effort by US unions to “reinvent” themselves.

Concurrent with the “Sweeney revolution”, a dramatic generational turnover has occurred in the leadership of major unions, labor councils, and state federations. Andrew Stern, for example, 52, a Penn graduate and student activist rose to lead America’s largest union, SEIU. John Wilhelm, 56, the new president of HERE, a graduate of Yale, also came to labor as a student activist. And Doug McCarron, 51, neither a student activist nor college educated, has led the United Brotherhood of Carpenters through a major reorganization, including severing ties with the AFL-CIO. Similarly, at the state and local level, since 1998 the Los Angeles Federation of Labor has been led by Miguel Conteras, 50, the son of migrant farm workers and former organizer for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers. Josie Mooney, 48, a college educated former community organizer leads the Bay Area public workers union and serves as president of the San Francisco Labor Council – the first woman to occupy those posts. Members of this generation are also responsible for new efforts to bring young people into the labor movement – college-educated apprentices recruited by the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute and Union Summer and, to a lesser degree, new immigrants who have been mobilized through campaigns like “justice for janitors.”

Where did this new generation of California union leaders come from? Who are they? Why did they join the union movement? Why did some leave? And why did many more stay?