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Thomas Donahue Papers

Identifier: LP001895


Thomas (Tom) Reilly Donahue was an influential figure in both the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. He served as the executive assistant to David Sullivan, the first vice president of SEIU, the executive assistant to George Meany, the secretary-treasurer of AFL-CIO, and as the president of AFL-CIO.

The papers document a portion of Donahue's time as the executive assistant to David Sullivan and as the first vice-president of the Service Employees International Union, and span from 1962-1973.

Material includes some correspondence, legal cases, handwritten notes, conference material, and a published seminar featuring a paper written by Sullivan and presented by Donahue.


  • 1962 - 1973


Language of Materials

Material entirely in English.


Collection is open for research.


Refer to the Walter P. Reuther Library Rules for Use of Archival Materials. Restrictions: Researchers may encounter records of a sensitive nature – personnel files, case records and those involving investigations, legal and other private matters. Privacy laws and restrictions imposed by the Library prohibit the use of names and other personal information which might identify an individual, except with written permission from the Director and/or the donor.


Thomas (Tom) Reilly Donahue was born on September 4, 1928 in New York City to parents Thomas R. Donahue and Mary E. Donahue (nee Purcell). The youngest of four in an Irish-Catholic household, Donahue attended Mount St. Michael Academy in the Bronx, and graduated in 1944. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1945 and served until 1946.

Donahue then started at Manhattan College and met Brother Cornelius Justin, to whom he partly credits his early interest in the trade union movement. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in Labor Relations, a major that Brother Justin initiated at the college, in 1949. Donahue also met George Donahue, the President of the National Association of Catholic Trade Unions at the time, who was yet another instigator of his early trade union interest. Of no relation, George Donahue hired Donahue to work as a part-time organizer for the Retail Clerks’ Union.

In 1949, Donahue started working full time for Building Service Employees International Union (now Service Employees International Union) Local 32B, having organized with them previously while working as an elevator operator in a department store. He held multiple roles for Local 32B, including Education Director and editor of their magazine.

Donahue continued his education during his time with the local. He took classes at New York University Graduate School, where he studied labor economics, and got his artium baccalaureus (A.B.) from Fordham School of Law in 1956. Donahue then moved to Paris to work with the Free Europe Exiles Relations Division of Radio Free Europe, a broadcast service created by the Free Europe Committee. He held that position until 1960, when he returned to the United States and served as the executive assistant to SEIU president David Sullivan until 1967.

He was then recommended to President Lyndon B. Johnson as a candidate for Assistant Secretary of Labor for labor-management relations. He functioned in this position from 1967-1969 then moved to become the SEIU Executive Secretary, a title created for Donahue, from 1969-1971. Donahue’s work with SEIU continued for a few years more, as the first vice-president of SEIU from 1971-1973, until his shift to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

In 1973, he worked as the executive assistant to AFL-CIO founder George Meany. He maintained that post until 1979, the year he married activist Rachelle Horowitz and ran for Secretary-Treasurer of AFL-CIO and won. Donahue remained in that position until 1995, when he was elected as president after Lane Kirkland retired. He officially ran for the position shortly after and lost to John J. Sweeney. Donahue remained active in both national and international politics.


0.25 Linear Feet (1 MB)


Folders are listed by their location within each box. They are arranged alphabetically.


Material was donated to the Walter P. Reuther Library by Thomas R. Donahue in 2006 and in 2014.

Related Materials

SEIU Executive Office: David Sullivan Records, SEIU Executive Office: George Hardy Records


A recording, Heartbeat of Industry, related to Local 32B's 25th Anniversary was added to the Walter P. Reuther Library Phonograph Record Collection.

Processing History

Processed and finding aid written by Sarah Lebovitz on September 5, 2018.
Guide to the Thomas Donahue Papers
Processed by Sarah Lebovitz.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Walter P. Reuther Library Repository

5401 Cass Avenue
Detroit MI 48202 USA