Born and raised in the Bronx in New York City, Donahue is the son of Thomas R. and Mary E. Donahue and the grandson of Irish immigrants. As the New York Times noted, he “came of age at a time when unions were helping deliver New Yorkers from the Depression and were perceived as a beacon for many young people.”
Donahue was first drawn to the trade union movement after he saw how much his father’s wages jumped when he went from being a nonunion janitor to a unionized construction worker. The younger Donahue worked as a Best & Company department store elevator operator, a school bus driver, a bakery worker, and a doorman at Radio City Music Hall.
He graduated from Manhattan College in 1949 with a degree in labor relations. Donahue’s union career actually started a year before that when he became a part-time organizer for the Retail Clerks International Association. From 1949 to 1957, he held several positions with Local 32B, the flagship local of the Building Service Employees International Union (BSEIU), including business agent, education director, contractor director, and publications editor. Meanwhile, he attended night classes at Fordham Law School and received his law degree in 1956.
In 1957, he became the European labor program coordinator for the Free Europe Committee in Paris. He returned to the United States in 1960 to take a position as executive assistant to David Sullivan, the newly elected president of the BSEIU.
Many years later, Donahue would tell interviewers that Sullivan “remains my hero in the trade union movement. He was an Irish immigrant who came here in 1926 and was an elevator operator at the start, and became active in the union. He then led the reform faction in the union to oust a racket-dominated leadership.”
Donahue was nominated by President Lyndon Johnson as Assistant Secretary for Labor-Management Relations in the Labor Department in 1967. He served in that position until the end of the Johnson administration in 1969, then returned to the Service Employees International Union, as it was by then called, where he served as executive secretary and later first vice-president.
He became executive assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, George Meany, in 1973.
Already an influential figure as Meany's executive assistant, when Meany retired in 1979 Donahue was elected Secretary-Treasurer, the second-ranking position in the AFL-CIO. The week of his election, the New York Times reported that “his position is a strong one. The federation is generally regarded as the voice of labor. And Mr. Donahue is an intelligent man with clear opinions.” He was re-elected at seven AFL-CIO biennial conventions.
For the next 16 years, Donahue was involved in virtually every part of the trade union movement. But his strongest influence was in three areas: the campaign against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), rejuvenation of the union movement, and advancing Catholic social teaching on workers’ rights.
In December 17, 1992, President George H.W. Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and Mexican President Carlos Salinas met in Texas to sign NAFTA, which would create a trilateral trade bloc and financial zone in North America. To take effect, NAFTA had to be ratified by the legislatures in the three countries.
Long before the signing ceremony, Donahue was already leading a massive campaign by the AFL-CIO against US ratification. As early as February, 1991, “the AFL-CIO has made blocking a Mexican agreement its No. 1 legislative priority,” the New York Times reported.
The main reasons for AFL-CIO opposition were that “it would pave the way for tens of thousands of… jobs to be exported to Mexico, and it would bump hundreds of thousands down the economic ladder to underemployment and low wages,” Donahue wrote.
He condemned its “powerfully regressive effect” and noted, “The jobs that are most easily exported to Mexico are not those of probate attorneys, stockbrokers, economists, and editorial writers; they are the jobs of assembly-line workers and others who can least afford a massive disruption of their work lives.”
The AFL-CIO was certainly not the only opponent of NAFTA. Others included Ross Perot (among the most vocal critics of NAFTA), the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the National Farmers Union, the National Council of Senior Citizens, Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, Jerry Brown’s We the People, and Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition.
However, a pro-NAFTA editorial in the Washington Post complained that “it’s not Ross Perot but the labor movement that’s the central force in the campaign to kill NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement. Mr. Perot has little following in Congress, but the unions have been working ferociously to line up their friends and campaign beneficiaries against the agreement.”
Donahue succeeded in mobilizing the entire trade union movement against NAFTA. The New York Times reported that “within the labor movement, the campaign against the accord extends far beyond the industrial unions…’Our self-interest is very similar,’ said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. When factories close, he said, community tax revenues plunge, so teachers lose wages and jobs.”
Beyond the AFL-CIO, Donahue oversaw what the New York Times described as the federation’s “lobbying, petition drives and $3.2 million in billboard and radio advertising.” He testified before Congress against NAFTA at least nine times. He appeared on such TV shows as NBC’s Meet the Press and CNN’s Late Edition. He frequently wrote articles, letters to editors, and op-ed pieces for leading newspapers.
And he built an unprecedented working coalition between the AFL-CIO and leading environmentalists, notably the Sierra Club and the National Toxics Campaign – the strongest relationship in the history of the two movements.
All of it was not enough.
By September, 1993, NAFTA’s supporters “seem to have the stronger hand: the prestige of the White House as well as five of its former occupants; a slew of eminent economists; the nation’s most powerful business lobbies, including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers; and even the Christian Coalition. The Mexican government, as well, has poured millions of dollars into U.S. lobbying,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Two months later, NAFTA passed the House by a vote of 234-200 and the Senate by a vote of 61-38. It was signed by President Clinton on December 8, 1993, and went into effect on January 1, 1994.
Nine years later, an Economic Policy Institute briefing paper on NAFTA’s effects pointed out that “the rise in the U.S. trade deficit with Canada and Mexico through 2002 has caused the displacement of production that supported 879,280 U.S. jobs. Most of those lost jobs were high-wage positions in manufacturing industries.”
It continued, “The loss of these jobs is just the most visible tip of NAFTA's impact on the U.S. economy. In fact, NAFTA has also contributed to rising income inequality, suppressed real wages for production workers, weakened workers' collective bargaining powers and ability to organize unions, and reduced fringe benefits.”
Although Donahue’s personal background and career were in many respects traditional for trade union officials, no AFL-CIO leader has been more intensely focused on creating institutional change.
When he was elected secretary-treasurer, he told a reporter, “My hopes for the labor movement are growth, dynamism, militancy.” For Donahue, those meant innovation and sweeping reforms.
The chief vehicle for his efforts was the AFL-CIO Committee on the Evolution of Work, which he chaired. Under Donahue, “the group has become the federation’s principal think tank for modernizing its structure,” according to the New York Times.
It eventually published three reports: “The Future of Work” (August, 1983), “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions” (February, 1985), and “The New American Workplace: A Labor Perspective” (February, 1994).
“The New American Workplace” is still notable for exploring “a model for a new system of work organization”: one that rejects “the traditional dichotomy between thinking and doing, conception and execution” and recognizes that “workers – the individuals who actually do what it is the organization is doing – are in the best position to decide how their work can most efficiently and effectively be accomplished.”
But the most important report of Donahue’s committee—and the one with the greatest long-term effect on American unions—was “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions.” The New York Times summarized its message as: “American unions have fallen ‘behind the pace of change,’ and should adopt innovative methods for representing their members and for attracting new ones.”
The Times in a front-page story called it a “frank study” and “the first of its type in the history of the nearly 35-year-old AFL-CIO.” One committee member, American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker, described the Report as “a revolutionary document.” Similar support was expressed by other members of the committee, including Jack Joyce, president of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers; Charles Pillard, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; Glenn Watts, president of the Communications Workers of America; and Lynn Williams, president of the United Steelworkers.
Several of the Report’s recommendations would serve as a blueprint for some of the largest changes in the AFL-CIO during the quarter-century that followed its publication.
For example, Donahue’s committee recommended that “consideration should be given to establishing new categories of membership for workers not employed in an organized bargaining unit.” Such a significant structural change would constitute a dramatic departure from the normative way that workers became and maintained their status as union members.
At first, it was not universally embraced. When Donahue presented a membership benefits program to the 1985 AFL-CIO convention based on his committee’s recommendation, “several local and national union officials who are supposed to carry out the program say they have grave misgivings about it,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “They worry that labor’s goal of bargaining collectively will be blurred by a special category of members whom the union wouldn’t fully represent and probably couldn’t count on in a strike.”
But Donahue’s vision ultimately won out. He and his committee laid the groundwork for:Union Privilege, which today offers an array of Union Plus consumer benefits to union members and retirees, including mortgage assistance, credit cards with provisions for laid-off and striking workers, supplemental Medicare insurance, and discounts on vision and dental care; and,
Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate for “workers without the benefit of a workplace union” who support “good jobs, affordable health care, world-class education, secure retirements, real homeland security and more” and are eligible for Union Plus benefits.
Another reform that Donahue championed was systematic, intensive training of a new generation of union organizers. “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions” stated that “[union] organizing is a skill; it is not something that everyone can do and is not something that can be taught in a one-week training session….Organizers should be extensively trained.”
Donahue became the leading advocate inside the AFL-CIO of creating an Organizing Institute (OI). It was launched in 1989. “One of my proudest accomplishments as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer was our creation of the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute to recruit and train organizers,” he commented in 1995.
The OI has trained and graduated thousands of union members, staffers, and students, who have gone on to help organize countless American workers into unions. It was emulated nine years later by the Trades Union Congress in Britain which created its own Organising Academy.
Catholic social teaching
Donahue has said that the two people who sparked his early interest in the trade union movement were Brother Cornelius Justin, his teacher at Manhattan College, and George Donahue (no relation), who was president of the National Association of Catholic Trade Unionists.
Thomas Donahue's Catholicism was always central to his career in the trade union movement. Along with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and former Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-N.Y.), he became known in the 1980s and 1990s as an important lay advocate in public life of Catholic social teaching.
His main focus was always workers' rights. In his formal role as a North American Commentator to the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace, Donahue summarized his ideas in a presentation he gave at an international symposium in Rome on the topic of Laborem exercens, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on human work. He praised the Pope's "statements that work must provide 'fulfillment as a human being' and must be arranged so that it also 'corresponds to man's dignity'".
However, Donahue also expressed his conviction that "what the Pope takes for granted as a right of association freely exercised, guaranteed in a democratic society, is often trampled upon in this country and others. And one must conclude that it is trampled upon in pursuit of the profit motive and in an effort to exclude workers from any voice in ownership, or management, or indeed, from any effective participation in the fixing of the conditions under which they will labor".
“The American labor movement has always been involved with the well-being of workers in other lands,” Donahue wrote in a 2000 letter to the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine that set out his views of the AFL-CIO’s international role.
He added that “in more than 50 countries [after World War II], the AFL-CIO helped workers develop independent unions to protect and advance their interests, both on the job and in civil society. It was a relentless foe of all forms of totalitarianism. It had and still has only one test by which to judge a nation: Is a free and democratic union movement allowed to function there?”
Two major areas of Donahue’s own international work, both as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer and during his retirement, have been his support of the struggle against South African apartheid and his activism on behalf of Cuban workers.
His involvement in the South African effort in the 1980s included testifying before Congress in opposition to apartheid on three occasions.
When the New York Times columnist and human-rights advocate Anthony Lewis wrote in 1984 that Americans “have begun to feel a responsibility for helping to bring the cruelty of [South African racism] to an end” and noted that “members of Congress and other political and community leaders have picketed and deliberately invited arrest by walking across police lines,” the only one he mentioned by name was Donahue.
Lewis reported approvingly that Donahue “said it was time to boycott South African imports and, if necessary, to prohibit U.S. investment in South Africa.”
Donahue is now a leading advocate of Cuban workers’ rights in his role as chair of the Committee for Free Trade Unionism (CFTU).
He has written that the Committee supports “the right of Freedom of Association – the right [of workers] to form and join unions of their own choosing, run by people they elect.” He has also noted that “the CFTU has been active in recent years in attempts to assist workers in Cuba struggling to assert that right – in the face of their government’s insistence that only one union, guided by the Communist Party, can represent them, and against the background of continuing imprisonment and harassment of those who think otherwise.”
In struggles elsewhere, Donahue as secretary-treasurer played a leading role in the AFL-CIO's critical support movement for Poland's Solidarnosc or Solidarity movement, which succeeded in establishing free trade unions in the Soviet bloc and was a key catalyst for the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
Donahue served as chairman of the Special Advisory Committee to the President and Secretary of State on Labor and Diplomacy during the tenures of Secretary Albright and Secretary Powell. The Committee produced reports urging, among other items, strengthening of the Foreign Service’s Labor Attaché program. In addition, the Committee urged the State Department to intensify its outreach activities among workers and labor unions abroad, including in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
He served on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) for ten years between 1997 and 2006, and continues to serve on the organization’s Audit & Budget Committee. Today, in addition to serving as chairman of the Committee for Free Trade Unionism, he is a board member of the Albert Shanker Institute, and a board member of the Dunlop Agricultural Labor Commission. Donahue is a past member of the boards of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Brookings Institution.
In 1997, Donahue remarked, “For (former AFL-CIO President George) Meany, for (former President Lane) Kirkland, and I hope always for myself, those issues were always fairly clear. Either you stand on the side of democratic forces or you don’t.”
Donahue first led a U.S. labor delegation to Ireland and Northern Ireland in 1983 and met with the Northern Ireland committee of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) to discuss discrimination against Catholics within Northern Ireland.
After meetings in Belfast, the delegation met in London with the British Trade Union Congress to press further the case for fair employment principles in Northern Ireland. The call for such reform was embodied in a Report of the Trade Union Delegation to Northern Ireland published in 1983.
During the 1980s, Donahue was a strong advocate for the Sullivan Principles, which called upon U.S. companies operating in Northern Ireland to observe fair employment principles and practices.
Because of his consistent role in advancing the struggle for human rights in Northern Ireland, he was invited to join President Clinton’s 1996 delegation to Belfast. He was also named a recipient of the annual Bell and Thrush Award by the Irish American Historical Society in recognition and was honored to be appointed as the 1997 Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Washington, D.C.
Early in 1995, leaders of a broad cross-section of the labor federation’s unions encouraged Donahue to challenge incumbent AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland. Owing to his sense of loyalty, Donahue insisted that he would not oppose Kirkland, who for his part maintained his intent to seek another term. As a result, a faction of dissenting unions decided to abandon their “Draft Donahue” efforts and lined up behind then-SEIU President John Sweeney, a former Donahue protégé and fellow native of The Bronx, New York.
Then, in the late Spring of 1995, Kirkland made it known that he had changed his mind and would resign from office. In August 1995, Donahue was elected president by a two-to-one margin over Sweeney in a vote by the AFL-CIO’s governing body, its Executive Council. Prior to the vote, Donahue had asked Barbara Easterling, Secretary-Treasurer of the Communications Workers of America, to join his ticket as candidate for the Secretary-Treasurer position. Easterling agreed, and was duly elected as the first female officer in either of the labor federation’s two senior positions.
Four months later, John Sweeney ran against Donahue again, this time at the federation’s bi-annual convention. His platform included a pledge to add a third national officer (Executive Vice President) and to increase the size of the Executive Council from 33 members to 45. While Donahue remained open to the idea of expanding the number of unions represented on the governing council, he declined to solicit votes on the basis of such a concept.
Donahue has been awarded several post-graduate honorary degrees by several institutions of higher learning, including Notre Dame; Loyola University Chicago; Manhattan College; City University of New York; State University of New York; University of Massachusetts, and the National Labor College.
Donahue has been married to Rachelle Horowitz since 1979. He has two children, Nancy Donahue and Thomas R. Donahue III, from an earlier marriage.
Horowitz has been involved in the civil rights movement, the trade union movement, and Democratic politics since the 1950s.
At the age of 24, she was the transportation director for the 1963 March on Washington, which brought together some 250,000 people for the largest demonstration in America until then. Horowitz spent three months in Jackson, Mississippi, planning for the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats and Freedom Summer in 1964 and was arrested in labor and civil rights protests.
In the trade union movement, Horowitz served as the assistant to the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin from 1964 to 1973 when he was president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. She later became the political director of the American Federation of Teachers and assistant to its president, Albert Shanker, who had enormous influence in the union movement and politics. William Galston of the Brookings Institution once described Horowitz’s role. Referring to the 1973 Woody Allen movie “Sleeper”—in which “a thawing Woody is informed that most of civilization was destroyed when a man named Albert Shanker got the Bomb” – Galston joked, “Well, if Al Shanker had gotten the bomb, Rachelle would have been in charge of target selection.”
She represented the trade union movement on the Democratic National Committee from 1980 until 2000. In that period, she co-chaired the party’s Rules Committee and served on the Executive Committee and the committees that drafted the party’s 1988 and 1992 platforms. Horowitz was a leading figure in the presidential campaigns of Ted Kennedy (1980), Walter Mondale (1984), Michael Dukakis (1988), and Bill Clinton (1992).
Horowitz now serves on the Board of Directors of the National Democratic Institute, which she helped found in 1983.
Together, Horowitz and Donahue currently lead an active retirement in Washington, D.C.