Thomas R. Donahue – Advisory Board Member
Secretary-treasurer of the national AFL-CIO from 1979 to 1995 and president in 1995, was a persuasive champion of the need for labor renewal in the face of a changing economic and political environment. Many of the programs he initiated continue to inspire and inform today's innovations in organizing and workplace representation.
Donahue grew up in an Irish Catholic family in The Bronx, New York. After completing his elementary and secondary schooling, he joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 17, serving as a seaman from 1945–1946. Upon his return to shore, Donahue worked as a part-time organizer with the Retail Clerks International Union and attended Manhattan College, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in labor relations.
Shortly after receiving his degree, Donahue was named the director of education for Local 32B of the Building Service Employees International Union (BSEIU) in New York City. He served there as director of education and as director of the contract department. During this period, Donahue also attended evening classes at the Fordham School of Law, from which he received the LL.B. degree.
In 1957, Donahue became the European labor program coordinator for the Free Europe Committee in Paris. He returned to the United States in 1960 and joined the staff of the national office of the BSEIU as the executive assistant to David Sullivan, the newly elected president of the national union, for whom Donahue had worked at Local 32B.
In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Donahue the assistant secretary of labor for labor-management relations. At the end of Johnson's term, in 1969, Donahue returned to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as executive secretary.
In 1971, Donahue was elected first vice president of the SEIU, to serve a one-year term, and in 1972 was re-elected to a full four-year term. Then in 1973, Donahue became executive assistant to AFL-CIO President George Meany and, after Meany's retirement in 1979, was elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, a position he held for 16 years.
As secretary-treasurer, Donahue led the labor movement's efforts to develop institutional responses that would ensure its continued strength in its changing economic and political circumstances. In 1982, the AFL-CIO Executive Council formed the Committee on the Evolution of Work with Donahue as its chair. Over the next dozen years, the committee brought together labor's top leaders and advisers to think strategically about labor's future. Its 1983 report, The Future of Work, analyzed changing employment patterns and the effects of technology. In 1985, the committee issued its report on The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions, which was widely viewed as a blueprint for increasing labor's influence and identified a number of promising strategic and tactical innovations and encouraged unions to experiment with new approaches.
Under Donahue's leadership, the AFL-CIO launched a number of initiatives inspired by the report, including the recruitment of “associate members,” new financial services for union members and new resources and administrative structures for organizing. In 1994, the committee released a third report, The New American Workplace: A Labor Perspective, A Call for Partnership, which laid out labor's response to work reorganization and joint labor-management partnerships.
In 1995, after Lane Kirkland retired as president of the AFL-CIO, the Executive Council elected Donahue to serve out the remaining months of Kirkland's term. Subsequently, at the AFL-CIO convention later that year, in the first contested election for leadership in the organization's history, Donahue lost the presidency to John J. Sweeney, then president of the SEIU.
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