Linda Chavez-Thompson: 1944—: Labor Leader Biography
As the number three person at the American Federation of Labor and Congress Industrial Organizations, better known by the acronym AFL-CIO, Linda Chavez-Thompson is in a powerful position. She can turn the ears of politicians, labor union leaders, and the media. She can also put fear into corporate leaders dead set against unionism. When Chavez-Thompson talks labor, people listen. She is the first woman and the first minority to hold this position. One of eight children born to a second generation Mexican-American family in Texas, Chavez-Thompson left school in ninth grade to pick cotton. She never returned. Instead she learned on the job—analyzing job contracts and legislature, leading strikes, and mediating worker grievances. Lack of formal education did not prevent her from ascending the ranks of labor and becoming not only a role model, but also a powerful force in the reinvigoration of a labor movement that has been waning since the 1950s. Since her appointment to the executive council of the AFL-CIO membership numbers are up. Her message reaches laborers because she is one of them. A garbage worker quoted in U.S. News and Report summed up her success, "This little lady knows what hard work is," he said, "and if anybody is going to be able to represent us, she can."
Linda Chavez was born in Lubbock, Texas on August 3, 1944, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants. Her parents worked as sharecroppers to support their eight children. Like her siblings, Chavez-Thompson began working at an early age to supplement her family's meager income. She was just ten when she began picking cotton for 30 cents an hour in the small town of Lorenzo. A few years later, she was asked by her father to leave school to work for the family full-time while her brothers continued their education. His reasoning was that education was not as important for a girl, since she would eventually marry and become a housewife. In an oft-told anecdote from her childhood, lack of schooling did not prevent Chavez-Thompson from becoming an early labor negotiator. With the backing of her siblings/workers Chavez-Thompson convinced her father that her mother should stay home and care for the house instead of joining them in the fields. The threat that the children would walk off the job was real enough for her father to agree.
At nineteen Chavez married Robert Thompson and took on her hyphenated surname. Following her marriage, she left the cotton fields for cleaning houses and entered the work world of minimum wage. Then in 1967, through the help of an uncle, she landed a secretarial position with the Lubbock local of the Laborers' International Union, the same union to which her father belonged. At $1.40 an hour, the pay was barely higher than what she made as a cleaner, but in this position she began to find her calling. As the only bilingual staff member, she soon took on more responsibilities and began to serve as the union representative for the Spanish-speaking membership. Though Texas was a state notorious for its anti-union mindset, Chavez-Thompson embraced her job. "From not even knowing what a union was, Chavez-Thompson soon found herself drafting grievances for workers, then representing them in administrative proceedings. She pored over the rule books and took every organizing course offered," wrote the U.S. News and World Report.
In 1971 Chavez-Thompson went to work for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union, AFSCME. She began with the Austin Local as an international representative. However, in 1973 she moved to the San Antonio Local 2399 and accepted a less demanding position as an assistant business manager. A mother by this time, she wanted to spend more time with her family. She remained with 2399 over the next twenty years, being appointed executive director in 1977. During this time Chavez-Thompson endured some of the most difficult times of her career. Not only was Texas business hostile to unions and labor organizing, but government employees—the very workers AFSCME represented—were denied union status under Texas law. "Trying to defend the rights of government workers in Texas was a difficult proposition, because Texas law didn't allow for unions of government workers to be recognized as such. You had to maneuver and 'persuade' state officials," Chavez-Thompson told the Los Angeles Times. Persuade she did and many of the states under AFSCME's umbrella saw marked increases in their memberships.
Chavez-Thompson's hard scrabble past also began to emerge during this time as a powerful ally. Not only in her ability to take a hands-on approach, but also because of her first-hand knowledge of what it means to work hard just to stay at the poverty level. "I know what it is to be told the odds are against you," she told U.S. News and World Report. In one instance she took up the cause of 33 community college workers who were facing job losses because they spoke about financial abuse by a handful of trustees. Chavez-Thompson took up the battle call and was instrumental in the public ousting of three trustees, which resulted in the workers keeping their jobs. On another occasion a wildcat strike by garbage truck drivers meant that Chavez-Thompson had to provide emergency drivers. She was one of them. For the laborers she represents, Chavez-Thompson has faced arrest many times on picket lines and at protests. She has won many battles, saved jobs, and improved working conditions for untold thousands.
Chavez-Thompson's commitment to labor paid off with her appointment to positions of increasing visibility and responsibility. In 1986, she was elected national vice president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, a branch of the AFL-CIO. Then in 1988 AFSCME appointed her vice president of their seven-state region. Finally, in February of 1995 she took over the executive directorship of the Texas Council 42, AFSCME. In October of the same year Chavez-Thompson made history when she was elected to executive vice president of the AFL-CIO at its annual convention in New York. At the time the 13-million member group was facing many problems. Membership was at an all time low and no funds were being set aside to recruit new members. Also, workers were suspicious of unions as corrupt and felt little desire to join. Those that were union members felt little loyalty to the organizations. Of these problems, Chavez-Thompson told Report on the Americas, "We realized that the nature and the seriousness of these problems called not for moderate change, but for drastic change." Though some decried her appointment as merely a gesture for the organization which had become too 'male, pale, and stale,' Chavez-Thompson paid no attention and instead focused on the challenge of solving the problems facing unions and labor.
Chavez-Thompson set about reinvigorating the U.S. labor market by earmarking funds for recruitment. "We're dedicating 30 percent of our budget to organizing—that was never done before—and we're going to get results," she told Hispanic. She also focused recruiting efforts on women and minorities—two groups long underrepresented in unions. Another effort she has undertaken is teaching the importance of organized labor and activism to youth. "We've lost a couple generations of children who don't realize what their parents have done to build the workplace in America. Forty hours a week didn't just come automatically. Overtime didn't come automatically. Labor Day is more than just the last holiday before you go back to school," she told NEA Today. Her efforts have yielded success both in increasing membership and in the election of politicians committed to labor issues. "We stopped the hemorrhaging," Chavez-Thompson told Hispanic, "but it is still not easy for unions to build up their membership."
One of the most successful initiatives she has implemented in the promotion of unionizing is the enlistment of community groups such as churches, schools, civil rights groups like the NAACP, women's groups, and more. Though unions have traditionally kept their business private, Chavez-Thompson's point is that unions are made of workers who make up the community. "They are voters, parents, neighbors, and members of congregations she wrote in New Labor Forum. "We don't want to be considered outsiders because we know that our interests overlap with those of the communities. We want to be considered as part of the communities and as one with the groups that are contributing to improve people's living conditions," Chavez-Thompson told Report on the Americas. This approach has been wildly successful in numerous labor disputes, from K-Mart workers in North Carolina trying to obtain their first union contract to cafeteria workers at finance giant Saloman Smith Barney suffering retaliation for forming a union. Community groups recognizing the impact such anti-labor practices have on their community join forces to expose the unfair practices and the bottom-line focused companies back off.
In 1997 Chavez-Thompson was elected to another four-year term as executive vice president of the AFLCIO and in 2001, Chavez-Thompson was elected president of the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers ORIT, a group that represents over 45 million workers in North, Central, and South America. Growing up Chavez-Thompson was told repeatedly that a poor Hispanic woman like herself would never make it in American society. Recalling this she told U.S. News and World Report, "Well, that did it. I was determined to prove traditional society wrong." Not only did she carve her own success in American society, but in doing so she has paved the way for hundreds of thousands of workers—perhaps millions—to succeed on their own terms with the guarantee of fair treatment and pay for their hard work.
Hispanic, September 1998, p. 70.
Los Angeles Times, October 27, 1995, p. 1.
NEA Today, May 1997, p. 42.
New Labor Forum, Fall/Winter 1998.
Report on the Americas, July-August 1997, p.52.
U.S. News & World Report, December 25, 1995, p. 95.
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