The union affects all people in the workforce, not just its members.
By Melissa Luna
The labor movement has paved the way for new training, wages and safety policies in the workplace, an international political leader said Tuesday at the Methodist Student Center’s Hot Potato lecture.
In 1995, political leader Linda Chavez-Thompson was the first executive vice president for the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO).
“I wasn’t male, stale or pale,” she said.
Chavez-Thompson was the first woman, and person of color, to be elected to one of the union’s three highest offices.
“It’s what the unions do, not just for their members, but for you as a worker,” she said.
The labor movement paid for the buses that took marchers to see the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez-Thompson said.
“I have rallied and marched all over the world,” she said. “Politicians always know when I’m around.”
Workers have the right to representation, and as a member of the union, workers can get help to change their working conditions, whether it’s poor supervision or lack of training, she said.
“Workers need to learn that they can file a grievance and take action,” she said.
Chavez-Thompson’s passion for public employment began when she took a job as a secretary in 1967 for a construction business in her hometown of Lubbock.
The owner of the business was a white male who couldn’t speak or read Spanish.
Chavez-Thompson was hired on-the-spot for the laborers’ local union at $1.40 an hour because she was bilingual and could type.
Minimum wage was $1.25.
“I learned what a union was,” Chavez-Thompson said. “It paid good money, it had a good pension plan and people had rights.”
There was also a contract stating what employers and workers were expected to do, she said.
At the age of 10, Chavez-Thompson started working during the summer in the cotton fields with her family.
As a child, she was earning 30 cents an hour and her parents were earning 50 cents an hour.
The working conditions were poor, and Chavez-Thompson had always hoped for something more for her family.
So she bought her dad into the union with her.
Over 49 years, Chavez-Thompson held several positions with unions, which helped bring new policies regarding employee safety, higher wages and attendance.
Before her executive vice president position, she also held various positions with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in San Antonio, where she became an international vice president from 1988-96.
Even though she retired in 2007, Chavez-Thompson continues to work with the council in this city.
“I tell a lot of people, I’m waiting to retire from retirement,” she said. “I’m still fighting the fight.”
The next Hot Potato lecture will be on refugees at noon Tuesday at the Methodist Student Center.
For more information, call the center at 210-733-1441.