Jim Sweeney

Jim Sweeney: From Firefighting to Union Organizing

“Comin’ in hot!” is a skydiving expression.

I’ll bet they’ve been saying that about Jim Sweeney his whole life. 

He’s a former Chicago Firefighter, a charismatic and agile leader who has aggressively organized his Local 150 Operating Engineers union into the future. 

Hardcore Southside Irish love the White Sox and hate the Cubs, it’s part of our DNA. But Jim Sweeney says, “Oh I’m worse than that! I’ve never even seen the inside of Wrigley Field!” 

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He’s no friend of the “friendly confines."

Jim is the President-Business Manager of Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers. He started out at Queen of the Universe parish, on the west side of Marquette Park, the eldest of four kids born to the late Martin and Kathleen Sweeney, who emigrated to Chicago in the fifties from Mayo and Galway respectively. 

Jim Sweeney after jumping out of plane

Jim Sweeney after jumping out of plane

His dad worked construction as a heavy equipment crane operator and Jim followed in his footsteps, starting out as an operator, then mechanic, before going to work for the union as an organizer. Think bulldozers, excavators, monster construction stuff.

“We run all the heavy equipment from back hoes you see digging in the street to the tower cranes downtown, and all the mechanics and technicians that work on them.”

He started working for the union in ’87 as an organizer. Under his leadership, the union has grown from 9,000 members to over 24,000 today. Not only the operators were organized but so were the mechanics and then the equipment dealers. Local 150 covers Illinois, parts of Indiana and Iowa. His “spoke and wheel” organizing enlightens workers that “It’s better to be Union than not Union." 

And that means health care, pensions, annuity benefits until you die, in what Jim calls his “cradle to the grave approach.”

Jim was the chief organizer under the leadership of his predecessor. “I’ve got 20 organizers now, over three states that are just doing nothing but making non-Union companies Union.” 

Sweeney & Contractors at golf outing

Sweeney & Contractors at golf outing

He also started his own St. Patrick’s Day Parade in his backyard and recruited other Unions to join him.
The Building Trades Parade, aka “Archer Avenue Parade” is Chicago’s “longest continually running St. Patrick’s Day Parade” and has grown exponentially each year.

Jim says, “I live in a neighborhood of cops, firemen, and city workers.” The parade started with four floats and last year “it was 86 floats marching people.”

Revenue from parade sponsorships is donated to the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation’s “Get Behind the Vest” Program, which provides protective vests to CPD officers at no charge. Jim tells me, “Last year we raised a hundred thousand for Danny Golden.”

Golden is a Southside Chicago Police Officer who was wounded in action and paralyzed and is now working his way back, thanks to those parade donations. 

Jim’s son Kevin is also a Chicago Police Officer and no doubt part of the inspirations for his philanthropy. Turns out Kevin’s college roommate was a Navy Seal who acquainted Jim with the valor and courage of our Seal veterans. 

Sweeney & Seals jumping at Sweeney Classic

Sweeney & Seals jumping at Sweeney Classic

Sweeney switched the focus of his annual “Sweeney Classic” golf outing from donating to PACs for politicians to our armed forces.

SEAL Family Foundation Development Director Dayna Klock tells me, “The Jim Sweeney Classic benefiting SEAL Family Foundation began in 2016 raising 300k in the first year. Each year the amount raised grew: 500k in 2017, 625k in 2020 and 900k by 2021.

Jim said that if the event raised over $1 million he would parachute out of a plane with Navy SEALs. In 2023 the event raised over $1 million and Jim, as the photo shows, was good to his word.

As the beneficiary, SEAL Family Foundation is extremely grateful to Jim and Local 150 for their generosity and unwavering support of our mission. To date the event has raised over $5 million and has been integral to our success and being able to provide vital programs to our Navy’s elite warriors and their families.” 

Sweeney at Local 150 A

Sweeney at Local 150 A

Jim says, “Now it’s the whole industry, it’s the biggest contractors, its other trades, everybody helps. The SEALS golf with us and speak afterwards to the donors. So sometimes when I’m engaging with these big contractors, negotiating, it’s not pleasant. We’re in contract negotiations and I said, ‘Listen I’ll jump outta the plane with the SEALS and parachute into the golf course. It’s $50,000 from each of you if you want me to jump.”

“And they did the calculation and said, “It’s worth the bet to get rid of you!”

Jim says, “It didn’t work, I’m still here!’

He’s still “comin’ in hot!”