Linda Chavez–Thompson's ascension to the highest ranks of the labor movement forms the kind of narrative that might have been scripted by a Hollywood screen-writer or penned by a socially conscious novelist. The inspiring saga takes a 10–year–old Chavez–Thompson from the cotton fields of Texas to the executive council of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO). During the process, she became an inspirational role model and an effective organizer. Her success is remarkable not only because she's a woman but because she's a member of a minority.
Her career path included stints as a union secretary and a union local representative. She eventually worked her way up to the highest levels of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), becoming vice president of that organization in 1988. In her current role with the AFL–CIO, she acts as a bridge between the labor movement and minorities, working to bring together those two traditionally hostile factions.
Chavez–Thompson is the widow of Robert Thompson. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she relocated after moving from San Antonio, Texas. She has two children from a previous marriage and two grandchildren.
Before she emerged as the leading woman in the national labor movement, Chavez–Thompson, a second–generation American of Mexican descent, toiled as a young girl in menial jobs. She was born in Lubbock, Texas, on August 1, 1944, one of eight children born of sharecropper parents. She is no stranger to hard work. When she was only 10 years old, she started working in the cotton fields along with her family. Toiling beneath the hot Texas summer sun for 10 hours a day, Chavez–Thompson only earned thirty cents an hour. When she reached the ninth grade, she dropped out of school to help her parents, who were enduring a difficult period. She was only 19 years old when she married for the first time.
Chavez–Thompson has held the position of executive vice president of the AFL–CIO since her election on October 25, 1995, which came as a result of an insurgent campaign designed not to subvert the AFL–CIO but to infuse the organization with new blood, energy, and direction. Once elected, Chavez–Thompson proved to be more than a symbolic figure. After two years of effective leadership, she was re–elected on September 30, 1997, this time to a four–year term.
When she was first elected, and in accordance with the AFL–CIO's program to work more closely with other community groups, Chavez–Thompson became active in many national organizations. But she wasn't merely following the directives of the federation; this was part of her own vision as well. In addition to her vice–presidential duties, she has served on numerous boards and committees, including The United Way's Board of Governors and the U.S. State Department Advisory Committee on Labor Diplomacy. She is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Labor Heritage Foundation, an executive committee member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, and a board member of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
Following her first marriage, Chavez–Thompson went to work cleaning houses to help supplement her husband's city–employee wages and support their two–year–old daughter. Not long after, she started her trade union career serving as the union secretary for the Lubbock local of the AFSCME, the same labor union to which her father belonged. She held this position from December 1967 to June 1971. It was during that period that she got an up–close glimpse of the inner dynamics of the labor movement, knowledge that she would build upon as she advanced her career and made the transition from being a local to national figure.
From 1971 to 1973, Chavez–Thompson served as an AFSCME international union representative in San Antonio, Texas, at a starting salary of $1.40 an hour, which was only 15 cents above the minimum wage. The role fell to her because no one else in the union could communicate in Spanish with the predominately Latino membership. The role served as her entrance into the AFL–CIO, as the union was part of that organization. The position also placed her in hostile territory, as the union represented members in seven states (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah) where general opposition to labor organizing existed.
In 1973, Chavez–Thompson became an assistant business manager for AFSCME Local 2399 and soon graduated to the role of business manager. Eventually, she rose to the position of executive director, a post she held from 1977 through February 1995. Her responsibilities included advancing legislative, political action, and education programs. She also conducted every level of grievance procedures for membership representation. In 1986, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, AFL–CIO appointed Chavez–Thompson to be its national vice president, a position she held until 1996.
Continuing her rise in the labor movement, in 1988 Chavez–Thompson was elected AFSCME international vice president. She held the position until 1996. In that role she helped organize efforts in the labor–unfriendly seven–state region. Her tenure was highlighted by several significant accomplishments. In Texas, she organized a drive that brought in 5,000 new members. Also, she helped effect the passage of a collective bargaining law for public employees in New Mexico.
On February 4, 1995, she was elected executive director of Texas Council 42, AFSCME, which is made up of 17 locals with 10,000 members. In that role she focused her efforts on undertaking legislative and education programs that would help members in their fight against downsizing, budget cuts, and companies that contract out to non–union sources. Chavez–Thompson continues serving in that capacity.
In October 1995, Chavez–Thompson was elected executive vice president of the 13.6 million–member AFL–CIO. The push to elect her was part of an effort to improve union's relationship with women and minorities, who make up more than 40 percent of membership. As would be expected, her election didn't come without a struggle. She faced formidable opposition as she campaigned for the office by calling for a reorganization of the federation. However, the federation's president, John Sweeney, wanted to increase the number of council members and he wanted that increase to include a woman. Chavez–Thompson's election was seen as a bold step forward for the AFL–CIO in recognizing the nation's increasingly diverse work force at its highest level. In her capacity as vice president and third ranking leader of the AFL–CIO, she is working to forge closer ties between the union and women and other minorities.
During the Clinton administration, former President Bill Clinton appointed Chavez–Thompson to serve on the President's Initiative on Race and to serve as vice chair of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.
Social and Economic Impact
As a woman and as a member of a minority, Chavez–Thompson worked hard to gain the respect of her colleagues. Still, even as she worked hard to be taken seriously, many chose only to see her as a token figure. Others complained that she lacked the necessary experience to take on the responsibilities and pressures of such a high–ranking office. However, Chavez–Thompson would prove the doubters wrong, as she demonstrated that she was a good leader capable of effecting substantial change. Her efforts garnered her the respect and praise of other leaders within the labor movement, as well as other sectors within society, and she became a role model for both women and minorities, as she supplied those two factions with a stronger voice in the federation.
Still, even though she has worked hard for those two groups, her concerns and efforts cross all sectors. And the admiration directed back at her comes from all factions, not just women and minorities. Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, has said that Chavez–Thompson is "a master at interweaving the Latino culture with the majority culture."
Following her election, Chavez–Thompson became very active and influential in many areas. She is on the board of governors of the United Way and is a vice–chairperson of the Democratic National Committee. She is also on the executive committee of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and on the board of trustees for the Labor Heritage Foundation.
Like those who supported her, she sees her election as a big step forward. However, she realized the hard work had only begun and that much still needed to be done. She saw that there was a need for a "mind change" in the AFL–CIO. She credited the organization with creating the position of executive vice president and working to get her elected to fill that position, but she viewed that as only a beginning. Specific needs and changes she wants to bring about include having unions bring more women and minorities into high–ranking positions. Not only that, unions, she feels, need to hire more women and minorities at all levels. The AFL–CIO, she feels, need to diversify not only in its leadership but in its staffing.
Chronology: Linda Chavez–Thompson
1967: Began her labor union career as a union secretary for the Lubbock local of the AFSCME.
1971: Became AFSCME international union representative in San Antonio, Texas.
1973: Became business manager for AFSCME Local 2399.
1986: Appointed national vice president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
1988: Elected AFSCME international vice president.
1995: Moved to Washington, DC.
1995: Elected executive director of Texas Council 42, AFSCME.
1995: Elected executive vice president of the AFL–CIO.
1997: Re–elected executive vice president of the AFL–CIO for a four–year term.
She continues trying to build up the union's general membership, which in recent years has been shrinking. Part of her strategy focused on organizing workers in the service sector and on the community at large, as she would like to see the unions become less isolated from the community.
The goals of the AFL–CIO, as she sees it, are to reinvigorate the U.S. labor movement, which she feels has been on a decline due to the lack of organizing and rank–and–file mobilization. She wants members to regain the respect they once had for their unions, while at the same time becoming actively involved in the union. She wants to diminish the infighting and disloyalty. And she doesn't see these problems being solved overnight. The problems must be solved by a series of moderate changes and not by a drastic change.
She has strived to build AFL–CIO coalitions with neighborhood organizations, community groups, civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, National Council of La Raza, and with women's rights organizations.
Among her many strengths, Chavez–Thompson has demonstrated the ability to recognize new challenges and problems that arose in the 1990s and remained major issues as the country, and its labor force, headed into the new century. These new challenges included the ubiquitous specter of downsizing, the part–timing of the workforce, and the kind of substandard wages and working conditions that were alarming in a modern context. Chavez–Thompson looked to address problems created by the streamlining of the corporate workplace, including the elimination of health insurance and the loss of pension benefits. Above all, she seeks to see that all workers earn wages that will allow them a decent standard of living and are accorded the treatment and respect that their basic rights entitle them to.
At the beginning of the new millennium, she was looking to achieve the goals by helping to develop new methods of organizing workers in such a way that, in her words, would broaden and strengthen labor's base and through obtaining more political representation for workers.
Sources of Information
Contact at: AFL–CIO
815 16th Street
Washington, DC 20006–4145
Biography of Linda Chavez–Thompson. Democratic National Committee. Washington, D.C., 2001. Available at http://www.democrats.org/news/index.html.
Lord, Mary. "A Sharecropper's Daughter Revives Labor's Grass Roots." U.S. New and World Reports, 25 December 1995.
Figueroa, Maria. "An Interview with Linda Chavez–Thompson,"
"Linda Chavez–Thompson, Advisory Board Member." Welcome to the White House, Washington, D.C., 2000. Available at http://clinton4.nara.gov/textonly/Initiatives/OneAmerica/BIOLCT.html.
"Linda Chavez–Thompson—The Future of Populist Politics." Cultures in the 21st Century: Conflicts & Convergences, Colorado 1999. Available at http://www.coloradocollege.edu/Academics/Anniversary/Participants/Chavez–Thompson.htm.
PeaceNet. Available at http://womenshistory.about.com.
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