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Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

Honorary Degree Ceremony for Labor Movement Leader, John J. Sweeney

Gaston Hall
Georgetown University
September 3, 2009


Mr. Sweeney, honored guests, and members of the Georgetown community . . . welcome. As we prepare for the Labor Day holiday – a celebration honoring the innumerable contributions that working women and men have made to the building of America…and the expansion of the American dream – it’s fitting that we gather to recognize an extraordinary leader of the labor movement, John. J. Sweeney.

As we know, his leadership on issues such as health care, labor education, workplace safety, and civil rights, has skillfully brought together the diverse voices of labor into a powerful movement for the improvement of working conditions, and workers’ rights, in the United States.

And in all of his efforts, John exhibits a profound understanding that only through the attention, creativity, ambition, and satisfaction that an individual is able to bring to her or his work, can he or she achieve authentic human development—development which concerns the whole person in every single dimension and at the deepest levels.

In the words of Pope John Paul II, “Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for his humanity – because, through work, man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and, indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’” (Encyclical letter Laborem exercens n. 9)

Of course—as John knows—authentic human development is denied and destroyed if workers are exploited, abused, or marginalized—if their needs and rights are overlooked, ignored, or violated..

What is not always acknowledged is that John’s Sweeney’s efforts to promote authentic human development have not stopped at our borders. He has shepherded the expansion of the AFL-CIO’s relationships internationally, and recently, he was integral in developing and supporting the “Solidarity Center for the AFL-CIO,” a global effort to advance labor issues, to promote strong industry standards, to advocate for the right of workers to unionize, and to fight against discrimination, sweat shops, and child labor internationally.

John understands that in our increasingly globalized world— where nations are more interdependent and individuals more interconnected— we cannot truly defend workers’ rights and conditions in the United States; we cannot truly fight for authentic human development at home— unless we also fight for the rights and conditions of workers abroad.

And not only is solidarity with workers in the global community a necessity—a prerequisite for human development—we cannot, and should not forget, that it’s also a moral imperative. Again in the words of John Paul II, “Solidarity helps us to see the ‘other’ – whether a person, people or nation – not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength . . . but as our ‘neighbor,’ a ‘helper,’ to be made a sharer, on par with ourselves . . . in the banquet of life to which we are equally invited by God.” (Encyclical letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n. 39)

By looking beyond the utilitarian value of human labor, we’re able to see our fellow human beings as part of a world family, bound together by common hopes and a common desire for social justice. This is a powerful notion of unity, one with the potential to transform relationships between individuals and nations…and one which begins with the recognition of the common dignity of every person…of every worker….

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.

Today we’re pleased to recognize John for his leadership in the labor movement, and for his deep commitment to authentic human development in the global family. We are proud to welcome him as a member of the Georgetown family, and it’s now my pleasure to present our newest alumnus, Mr. John Sweeney.

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