At a funeral service Monday, John N. Sturdivant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, was remembered as a mentor, teacher, visionary, friend and taskmaster--but most of all, as an extraordinary union organizer.
"John's greatest ability was how he could bring people together in a common cause," said Bobby L. Harnage, who will serve out the remainder of Sturdivant's term as AFGE president.
"He's probably walking around heaven lobbying God on behalf of federal workers," said Fredna S. White, a longtime friend of Sturdivant's and president of AFGE Local 1822.
The service, held at the Word of Life Assembly of God Church in Springfield, Va., was attended by Vice President Al Gore, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, various other members of Congress and the Clinton Administration and hundreds of AFGE members.
Sturdivant died last week at the age of 59 after a year-long battle with leukemia. He was the first African-American president of any major AFL-CIO union and had served as AFGE's president since 1988. In August of this year he was elected to his fourth term as head of the union.
"America does not produce men like John Sturdivant very often," said Gore in a personal, anecdote-filled tribute at the service.
Gore and other speakers recalled Sturdivant's efforts in recent years to expand unions' scope of bargaining in government; to set up the National Partnership Council, a governmentwide labor-management panel; and to reform the Hatch Act, allowing federal employees to participate more widely in elections.
"I believed in John's vision," said Gore. "And I really couldn't figure out how to say no to John."
Gore also remembered Sturdivant's response to the Oklahoma City bombing. "We mourn for our brothers and sisters," the union leader said. "But we're going to fight like hell for the living."
Gore urged managers and labor union officials to re-commit to partnership and reinvention efforts as a tribute to Sturdivant. "I promise you that we are going to follow through to make sure John Sturdivant gets the legacy he deserves," said Gore.
Norton spoke of Sturdivant's "disarming grin" and "mixture of wit and determination."
"He was not about to let the federal government reinvent itself without the union as a partner," she said.
"Working people have lost a champion before the fight was over," said Norton. "It was not a fair fight, because John never lost those."
"In his early years," said White, Sturdivant "loved being a rabble rouser. In his later years, he loved being a consensus builder."
But Harnage said Sturdivant never lost his organizer's zeal. If he were at the service, Harnage said, Sturdivant would have said: "I love you. I'm with you on this. Have you signed up any members today?"