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Labor Leader Honored for Work Against Injustices

September 4, 2009 – Just before the country celebrates Labor Day, Georgetown University bestowed its highest degree on AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to honor a career spent fighting for workers’ rights in the United States and abroad.

Sweeney received the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, for his social justice work that includes advocating for better health care for workers, immigration reform for undocumented workers and increasing the participation of women and underrepresented people in the labor movement.

“This is a night I’ll never forget,” Sweeney said with a smile in Gaston Hall on Sept. 3. “It even nudges out being selected years back to be the grand marshal of the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade.”

Sweeney dedicated his degree to the “millions of working families who continue to inspire me through the work they do everyday to make our country a wonderful place to live.”

Labor Movement Faces Challenges

It is a difficult time for the labor movement, Sweeney acknowledged, pointing to depressed wages and savings wiped away in the recession. Rising unemployment in the past year has given a face to Americans without work, he added.

“The poor and out of work are no longer abstract or invisible,” Sweeney said. “They are our sons and daughters, our mothers and fathers, our friends and neighbors.”

Sweeney said the greater good of society necessitates reforms, including universal health care, job creation, environmentalism, stronger regulations on the financial industry, trade laws to protect workers’ rights, protection for immigrants and laws that preserve workers’ rights to form unions.

A Criticism of ‘Unfettered Globalization’

Sweeney pointed to his Catholic faith as a bedrock foundation for his work to realize those reforms. He said the June social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, from Pope Benedict XVI acted as a “timely tonic to my spirit.”

“It exposes the evils of unfettered globalization, shattering the notion that markets can be counted on to regulate themselves and that building quotas of poverty and underdevelopment are acceptable ways to make markets work,” the labor leader said. “The Holy Father reaffirms our belief in government as a legitimate tool for correcting injustice and inequality and for regulating business.”

Georgetown President John J. DeGioia applauded Sweeney’s work as an extension of Catholic teachings about the value of work on society and the individual. He particularly praised Sweeney’s efforts to “promote authentic human development” through work, and the union leader’s work overseas.

“John understands that in our increasingly globalized world,” DeGioia said, “… that we cannot truly defend workers’ rights and conditions in the United States, and we cannot truly fight for authentic human development at home unless we also fight for the rights and conditions of workers abroad.”

Many Sweeney supporters turned out for the degree ceremony, including his family and Georgetown faculty, staff and students.

“His speech was inspirational,” said Sam Harris (C’11). “I wish all prospective students were required to listen to it because this kind of social justice work is what Georgetown really is about -- and should be about.”

Related Information

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