The Legacy of Unions: Larry Thomas on Collective Strength

    While labor union membership has fallen over the last few decades, reports suggest that support for them is on the rise, fueled in part by recognition of how the coronavirus pandemic impacted especially the country’s most vulnerable workers. That is welcome news to longtime Chicago-area union organizer Larry Thomas, who believes unions continue to play an important part in the Black community.

    Now an at-large executive member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, for many years prior to his retirement in 2020 he handled community affairs for Chicago’s International Union of Painters and Allied Trades members. He spoke with WayMaker Journal about his experiences.

    WJ: How would you describe unions’ role today?
    Their role in the community is to make sure that the business sector will provide an affordable living with benefits, and to make sure that there is a safe and comfortable workforce. Because of the union, you’ll get days off… once upon a time, you had to work seven days a week, but because of the union, you’ll get two days to rest.

    WJ: Who introduced you to the unions and what was the selling point for you?
    Back in my early days, after high school, my brother was one of the head engineers at this housing development that was being built and he had me painting the vacant apartments. I didn’t like painting, but mainly they didn’t want me to be out in the streets. So, I went in and we were painting the units and after a while I found an interest in that.

    I was always aware of the unions. I remember growing up on the South side of Chicago; our unions were the autoworkers and the steelworkers. The unions back then were in our communities a lot, you know; they came out and gave Christmas gifts. They also gave you Thanksgiving dinners and brought meals out to the poor.

    WJ: What are some of the biggest myths out there about unions?
    One of the biggest misperceptions is the corruption. They think the unions are mob people. Well, I’m not going to lie, once upon a time that probably was part of the structure as it was built. But not today. The unions don’t do a well enough job of advertising themselves, to talk about the things that are new, within the community… the entire livable wage package [the unions negotiate] that the community doesn’t know; we need to explain that a lot better.

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    WJ: What should someone consider when thinking about joining a union?
    Number one, whatever industry that you’re in, seek out the union that represents those type of workers. There’s many unions and we don’t all represent the same people. Once you seek out that union that represents those people, talk to one of the representatives, so you can be aware and make yourself knowledgeable about how that union functions. Then you will find out how that benefits you to be a part of it, because it’s not just about paying the union dues. It’s about what do you get out of being a part of organized labor?

    WJ: What are some of the pros and cons of being part of a union?
    Unions are supposed to fight for equality at every level. In some cases they don’t because there’s people not looking like certain parts of the community in the leadership role. The members have to make sure that we stick together to fight for that, because there are internal battles that go on within all unions to make sure that that structure looks like everybody in the community. Because, remember, the union is the community and when it, from the top down, doesn’t look like that, especially in our community, there’s a major problem.

    Now, pros. When you are a part of organized labor, you will make an affordable living that will allow you to prosper. You will be able to afford all of the things that you deserve to have to be a middle-class person in this society.

    WJ: Every successful person has had a waymaker at some point in time. Tell us about some of yours.
    First of all, I’ve got to always give credit to my brothers. My father died when I was 12 years old. I had seven brothers. Every one of them played that role in my life at some point to make sure that I had the guidance, the support I needed in every aspect of life. Then I will give credit to some of the union people that I have met along the way, as well as some of the community activist leaders. I have to give a lot of credit to Rev. [Jesse] Jackson. I’ve known him a very long time, and today I can call him on the phone and he will give me direction and guidance.

    WJ: Based on what you know now, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?
    The only thing that I can say is what I would tell a 21-year-old today, because I have the great opportunity of mentoring a lot of young men off the streets, because my local is made up of every walk of life. I get the good, the bad and ugly. I would explain to them about seasonal work, because you will get laid off… [so] learn how to do more than just paint; I learned how to do a lot of things because I worked around a lot of tradesmen. There’s plenty opportunities once you become a tradesman, because you’re not afraid to use your hands, where you can make a decent living at any moment of your life. Plus, you have a craft, and no one can take that craft away from you. You may not be in the union, but once we train you in this craft, you’re fit for life.

    WJ: What are some of the most important things you have learned from the union?
    There’s many. One I just told you, about learning to do more things than I was trained to. But the union also helped me develop more patience and understanding of the common man and woman, because once I got to be a representative, you never hear any good stories. When you represent someone, all you hear is the problems, day in and day out.

    I teach some of the young representatives, we service the members and part of serving them is not just always going after the employer, but also helping with their mental state, when they’re struggling with things in life, because sometimes I’m the only call that I found out they can make. And when they trust you and believe in you, I’m the only call that may give them another lifeline.

    You never know what’s important to someone else until you sit down and talk with them. So the small things in life, you don’t sweat because you find out more about what other people are going through in life. That’s the most important thing the union has taught me, that compassion for people.

    WJ: What impression would you like to leave people with in regard to unions?
    Not to dismiss anyone else, but in the Black community, what I want them to know is that we created the union. It’s the Black movement that lifted the union up and gave it the legs to stand on. If it wasn’t for that the union would be weak. It was because of us in our unity and our dedication to each other and to our communities, we were able to drive and strive and move forward.

    Think about it: after the Depression we were the only people that were still thriving. Coming out of slavery, out of the Jim Crow South, we were already depressed, so we couldn’t be more depressed than what we were, and we were surviving. That’s how Wall Street was built, because we had that drive to build, to move, to develop things. I would hope people would get back to the basics of our existence; the union is the reason we excel. Make the union be what we expect it to be, because it’s for the people. We are the union.

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