In our 3rd. edition of Trades Digest we had the privilege of writing a tribute to Robert C. Sweeney. Mr. Sweeney was a true labor leader and pioneered a lot of the way for the South Jersey Building Trades. Mr. Sweeney passed today surrounded by his family. Below is our story from last year with some photos of the iconic labor leaders office that his son refused to occupy in honor of his father who was ill at the time. Our deepest condolences to the entire Sweeney family.
By SJ Trades Staff:
The office of the president of the Iron Workers Union Local 399 sits on the second floor of what was once an old school house overlooking Route 130 as it winds its way out of Westville, Gloucester County headed toward Brooklawn, Camden County.
The room remains virtually untouched since its one-time occupant, Robert C. Sweeney, retired in December 2012 as President and Business Manager. The pictures of Sweeney with union members, past and present, and local labor leaders and politicians still adorn the walls along with pictures of some of our country’s great national leaders, people that he admired. There are also vintage pictures of journeymen ironworkers, instrumental in building America in the early 20th century, sitting atop the Empire State Building in New York City.
The office is exactly how Sweeney left it, right down to his business cards in the card holder sitting on the front right corner of his desk. Sweeney’s son, Richard, is finishing out his father’s unexpired term but does not occupy his father’s office.
“My father and I are best friends, and that’s his office,” said Richard Sweeney with utmost reverence and respect.
Local 399 received its charter 91 years ago and from a modest start of 50 members, its membership now boasts over 800 members and its jurisdiction includes all of Camden, Gloucester and Salem Counties and parts of Burlington, Atlantic and Cumberland Counties.
Robert Sweeney joined the Iron Workers union in 1953 right out of high school. He became a business agent in 1971 and was elected to the office of President in 1991, serving in that capacity for 25 years. Among his many accomplishments was getting labor involved in politics. Not only did he see the value of forging and nurturing relationships with lawmakers, but he also encouraged and supported members of labor unions who ran for political office. Today union members from South Jersey are serving in national, state and local governments. Among those are United States Congressman Donald Norcross, an electrician’s union member, and State Senator Stephen Sweeney, Robert’s son, the President of the Senate since 2010, and also Vice President of the International Association of Iron Workers. There are several labor members serving in office on the local and county level.
“Bob worked hard to have members of the building trades run for elected office in some capacity, whether it be municipal, county, state or federal level,” said George E. Norcross III, the Chairman of Cooper University Health Care and the Executive Chairman of Connor, Strong and Buckalew.
In 1989 when George E Norcross III became the Camden County Democratic Party Chairman, Robert C Sweeney was influential in making sure the building trades were actively involved. He worked with leaders of both parties to further the labor movement.
“He was always loyal to his communities and believed in service to all,” George E Norcross III added. “Bob always helped apprentices and would always help those that could not help themselves.”
Richard Sweeney said one of the first items on his father’s checklist when he became president was start an annuity to supplement the pension plan iron workers have. It was something the elder Sweeney felt strongly about and, in pushing to establish one, demonstrated just how much he cared about the people he was elected to lead.
“It was a dream of his from when he first started,” Richard Sweeney said. “The guys before him never wanted to do it, but it was the first thing he did (once he was elected). The guys who are retired or about to retire are very thankful they have it.”
The annuity contribution made by the employer is combined with other contributions to form the Employer Voucher Contribution, while the employee contributes to the vacation fund, which the elder Sweeney also started, with pretax dollars to form the Employee Voucher Deduction. Both the contribution and deduction are added together to form the combined voucher package. For union members who work 20-30 years as journeymen iron workers it is not uncommon to have an annuity worth six figures.
“It’s a nice benefit,” Richard Sweeney said. “Guys have something besides their pensions when they retire.”
Stephen Sweeney said his father had a tough life growing up in Camden. His father died when he was young, but Senator Sweeney said, “Growing up without a father; growing up poor instilled in him the drive to work hard and to help people.”
“Everyone who knows my dad feels like he’s been their friend forever,” Senator Sweeney continued. “He naturally liked people and he always looked for opportunities to help people whenever he could.”
There were times when the elder Sweeney would not be repaid for whatever reason, but that never stopped him from helping the next person who needed a friend. It was engrained in his nature, and as long as he had the means, he would continue to help those less fortunate. He had been there, he knew their pain. So he would help.
The elder Sweeney, who is recovering from a stroke and resting at his home surrounded by his family, has always been more than a father to his sons. Senator Sweeney described it whereas, “most sons saw their father as a father, I saw my father as a friend.” While Richard Sweeney had this to say, “I got to work with him every day and it is one of the greatest gifts I will ever have.”
In addition to being a hard worker – he once worked for 33 different contractors in one year – Richard Sweeney was very active in many areas and was especially interested in politics, which is why he supported not only his son Stephen, the New Jersey State Senate President, but all members of the building trades who sought and won political office.
“He was active in a variety of things and I learned a lot working with him for 20 years.” Stephen Sweeney said. “People naturally gravitated to him. If you judge a man by his friends, then he is the most amazing man you’ll ever meet.”