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By Brian Donnelly
CHIEF COPY EDITOR, The Ionian
President Barack Obama declared that his first priority this year would be jobs in his Jan. 27 State of the Union Address, something that keynote speaker for Iona College's Jan. 26 Executive for a Day event John J. Sweeney spent 55 years advocating for.
Sweeney, a 1955 graduate of Iona College, is President Emeritus of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, and served four terms as President of the 11.5 million-member federation of trade unions before retiring last year. He addressed an audience of students, faculty and local media spilling out of the McGrath Rooms doors and into the third-floor hallway of the Robert V. LaPenta Student Union Tuesday night. "All in all, I thought it was very positive," Vice President of Advancement Dr. Rich Petriccione said. "He was happy to come to campus and we're always happy to have a guy like that back on campus. We saw a great turnout of students, and hopefully his comments were meaningful to some kids."
Dean of the Hagan School of Business Vincent Calluzzo estimated that over 200 people attended the lecture and that News 12 and the Journal News were present. Additionally, the Westchester County Business Journal covered the event in their Jan. 29 issue. Assistant Vice President for Campaigns and Major Gifts Marilyn Wilkie reached out to Sweeney to participate in the Hagan School of Business' Executive for a Day program, which tries to give business students a glimpse into the opportunities and challenges of the business world through the personal experience of business professionals.
Taking the podium in front of the standing-room only crowd, Sweeney assessed a host of polarizing issues affecting the sluggish economic environment, such as health care, the recent Massachusetts Senate election, banking regulations and the U.S. President's job performance. "In 2009, Obama brought new honesty and competency to the White House," said Sweeney, foreshadowing the president's State of the Union Address the following night. "Republicans want us to start at square one and scrap all the progress that we've made... We favor a public option because we think it is the only way to provide universal coverage and cut costs."
Sweeney, like Obama, emphasized the importance of health care reform to economic recovery. He also framed the issue of jobs and their creation, preservation and improvement in the context of Catholic social theory, quoting an encyclical by Pope Benidict: "The market is not, and must not, become the place where the strong suppress and subdue the weak." Petriccione appreciated the reference's rhetorical quality. "Mr. Sweeney is certainly an astute politician and he is somebody that has been representing a particular cause and point of view... when you bring in a guy like that to speak, I guess you know that that's what you're going to hear," Petriccione said.
Sweeney used the Executive for a Day program as a venue to not only convey his message, but to invite students, many of whom he noted were likely to consider careers in business, to contribute to the labor movement.Â He said, "With all that's going on in this country, with the economic crisis, we need all the help we can get." Unlike Obama, the audience's response to Sweeney's more partisan remarks was met with an open mind, in Wilkie's opinion. "I think they were interested to hear what Mr. Sweeney's thoughts were as a Washington insider regarding the current state of the economy and the effect it is having on the average American worker," she said.
In regard to how Iona arranged Sweeney's return to his alma mater, Petriccione told the Ionian that the college had already been in contact with him because Iona is going to present the Bronx native and Washington, D.C. resident with an honorary degree at this year's graduation. Sweeney already holds honorary degrees from Georgetown University, Oberlin College, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, University of Baltimore, Catholic University Law School and University of Toledo's College of Law. "Some people who work in organizing labor really look at it as a vocation," Petriccione said. "Here's a guy who did it for 55 years. It's an interesting way to look at a life, especially now that he's looking back, and I guess that's why we're honoring him."
Looking back, Sweeney's career began with the International Ladies' Garment Workers. He has also been a union representative and president for SEIU Local 32B in New York City, president of the Service Employees International Union, vice president of the AFL-CIO and chair of the AFL-CIO Executive Council committees on Health Care and Organizing and Field Services.
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