Thomas Donahue, Influential Leader of Organized Labor, Dies at 94

Thomas R. Donahue, the second in command to Lane Kirkland, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. for 16 years, and briefly his interim successor in an era of relentless union membership declines and diminished influence by organized labor in American life, died on Saturday in Washington, D.C. He was 94.

He was suffering from several health issues and was hospitalized on Thursday after a fall, his wife, Rachelle Horowitz, said.

A Bronx janitor’s son, Mr. Donahue worked as a baker, a bus driver and a doorman at Radio City Music Hall and later became a lawyer, an assistant secretary of labor in Washington and one of the most influential leaders of the postwar trade union movement.

Mr. Donahue, far right, in 1980 at a dinner in Washington. With him, from left, are Ephraim Evron, Israel’s ambassador to the United States; Lane Kirkland, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and President Jimmy Carter. Credit…Associated Press

In 1973, he succeeded Mr. Kirkland as executive assistant to George Meany, the old warrior who had merged the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955 and was the newly formed organization’s president.

In 1979, Mr. Donahue again succeeded Mr. Kirkland, this time as secretary-treasurer of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. The position was one step below the presidency, labor’s most powerful post. And when Mr. Kirkland was deposed as president by a revolt of constituent union leaders in August 1995, Mr. Donahue was named interim president, the heir apparent pending election at the federation’s convention in October.

But the prize that Mr. Donahue had coveted for decades — leadership of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the policymaking umbrella organization for 78 unions and 13.3 million workers — remained his for only three months.

Years of rank-and-file frustration with labor’s decline boiled over at the convention, and the tide that had swept Mr. Kirkland away caught Mr. Donahue in its tow. Despite his pledge of institutional reforms, he was soundly defeated by an insurgent slate led by John J. Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union.

“John Sweeney’s victory over Thomas Donahue in the first contested election for the leadership of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. yesterday reflected the labor federation’s recognition that it must change or continue to shrivel,” a New York Times day-after editorial said. “Mr. Donahue was shackled by the old craft-union legacy and came across as representing a failed status quo.”

Mr. Donahue soon retired.

Mr. Donahue in 1995 at a debate during his campaign for the presidency of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. He later said of the race, “I lost with a great deal of dignity, I want you to know. But I lost!”Credit…Stan Honda/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As Mr. Kirkland’s lieutenant throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, Mr. Donahue shared the scorn of disgruntled unionists as one industrial plant after another closed and the service economy grew rapidly with little union organization. Jobs went to foreign competition and to new processes, while strike after strike was lost, including one by the nation’s air traffic controllers in 1981.

There were also major successes in the Kirkland-Donahue years. Autoworkers, mine workers, longshoremen, warehousemen and the Teamsters joined or rejoined the A.F.L.-C.I.O. The first woman was placed on the organization’s executive council and the participation of Black and Hispanic people on the council was raised, though hardly enough to satisfy critics.

But the number of unionized workers fell to 15.5 percent from 24 percent of the American work force in the Kirkland-Donahue years. The A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s political power also faded, as fights were repeatedly lost in Congress. A notable loss was the failure in 1993 to block passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which unions had opposed in anticipation of American job losses to Mexico.

Despite being subordinate to Mr. Kirkland, Mr. Donahue was an influential union leader. He oversaw A.F.L-C.I.O lobbying, petition drives and a $3.2 million budget for advertising and promotion campaigns. He helped build a working coalition between the federation and environmentalists, notably the Sierra Club and the National Toxics Campaign.

And he was a prominent A.F.L.-C.I.O. spokesman in the losing fight against NAFTA. He appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and CNN’s “Late Edition”; wrote articles, letters to editors and opinion pieces for leading newspapers; and testified before Congress at least nine times.

Mr. Donahue created programs that offered consumer benefits to millions of union members, including mortgage assistance, credit cards and supplemental medical insurance with discounts for vision and dental care. And he was instrumental in international union work, supporting the Solidarity movement against Poland’s Communist regime and an investment boycott of apartheid South Africa.

Thomas Reilly Donahue Jr. was born in the Bronx on Sept. 4, 1928, the youngest of four children of Thomas and Mary (Purcell) Donahue, second-generation Irish American Catholics. His father’s wages jumped when he became a unionized construction worker.

He attended Bronx parochial schools and graduated in 1944 from Mount St. Michael Academy, a Marist Brothers high school in the Bronx. He joined the Navy as World War II ended.

He married Natalie Kiernan in 1950. They had two children: Nancy and Thomas III, before divorcing in 1975. In 1979, he married Ms. Horowitz, director of political action for the American Federation of Teachers.

In addition to Ms. Horowitz, he is survived by his daughter, Nancy Donahue, and six grandchildren. His son died of a gastric hemorrhage in 2018.

Mr. Donahue began his labor career in 1948 as a part-time organizer for the Retail Clerks International Association. He earned a bachelor’s degree in labor relations at Manhattan College in 1949.

Over the next eight years, he was a business agent, contract director and publications editor for the Service Employees International Union. He also studied economics at New York University and, after taking night classes for several years, received a law degree from Fordham University in 1956.

He worked in Paris from 1957 to 1960 for the Free Europe Committee, an American labor program that aided union exiles from Communist countries. On returning, he became an aide to the president of the Service Employees International Union for seven years, moving to Washington in 1963. He was an assistant secretary of labor in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration from 1967 to 1969.

Mr. Donahue with supporters in 1995 after he was nominated to head the A.F.L.-C.I.O. He lost the election to John J. Sweeney.Credit…Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press

Mr. Donahue jumped at the chance to become Mr. Meany’s assistant four years later. He also began his long association with Mr. Kirkland, following him into the upper echelons of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. to the pinnacle of union power.

After leaving the union in 1995, he remained in Washington, serving on the boards of foundations and government panels, including the National Endowment for Democracy and the State Department’s advisory committee on labor diplomacy.

He rarely spoke publicly about his short presidency or the election defeat that ended his life in the union. But in a 1997 interview for a Library of Congress oral history project, Mr. Donahue touched on the matter.

“I lost,” he said. “I lost with a great deal of dignity, I want you to know. But I lost!”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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