In 1995 American labor activist Linda Chavez-Thompson (born 1944) became the first woman appointed as an executive vice president of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Born to a family of Mexican-American field workers, Chavez-Thompson pursued her dedication to advancing the quality of life for American workers and by the late 20th century had become one of the foremost labor leaders in the United States.
Picked Cotton in Fields as a Girl
Chavez-Thompson was born to sharecropper Felipe Chavez and his wife on August 3, 1944, in Lubbock, Texas. Her grandparents had immigrated to the United States from Mexico, making her a second-generation American. All eight of the Chavez children worked in the fields to earn money for the family; Chavez herself began picking cotton for 30 cents an hour in Lorenzo when she was ten years old. Her grandfather, meanwhile, encouraged her to be proud of her Hispanic heritage and to do the best she could at any endeavor.
The course of Chavez's life would perhaps have been much different had she not resisted her father's demands that she leave school at age 13 to work for the family full-time by cleaning the house and making meals. The family was facing a financial crisis at the time, and her father believed that it was more important that his sons receive a proper education, since Chavez's likely destiny was to get married and become a housewife. Thus, she remained in school through the ninth grade and left at age 16.
As a teen Chavez offered an early demonstration of her soon-to-be legendary labor-negotiating skills when she petitioned her brothers and sisters to join her in quitting fieldwork if their overworked mother was not allowed to stay home and rest. The ploy worked, and Mrs. Chavez left her job and got the rest she needed at home. The incident no doubt made a strong impression on Chavez, proving the increased power of united workers.
In 1963, at age 19, Chavez married a city employee named Robert Thompson. In a move that was unconventional for the time but somewhat reflective of her Mexican heritage, she insisted on keeping her maiden name and hyphenating her husband's with it. She left her family and the cotton fields and found work as a house cleaner for the wage of one dollar an hour. She tired of the backbreaking work by 1967 and, determined to find a better job, applied for and got a secretarial position with the Lubbock local chapter of the Laborers' International Union, to which her father also belonged. She had no real idea what a labor union was but enjoyed the work and the increase in pay to $1.40 an hour.
Clerical Job Brought out Natural Talents
Chavez-Thompson was the only person in the local who could speak both English and Spanish. This increased her value to the office, since many of its members were Spanish speakers, and soon she took on more responsibilities. Before long she was serving as the union representative to all the local's Spanish-speaking members. She wrote up grievances and spoke for them at administrative meetings while taking organizational classes in her spare time. Chavez-Thompson educated herself so well in labor-related issues that she was even mistaken for a lawyer at one hearing.
Chavez-Thompson left the union in 1971 to take a new job as an international representative with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Union (AFSCME) in Austin, Texas. This was demanding work and, with a new baby, she was exhausted much of the time. Finally Chavez-Thompson decided to accept a less-demanding position with the San Antonio 2399 Local in 1973. This new job proved an excellent fit, and by 1977 she had been promoted to executive director.
Chavez-Thompson later recalled that these were some of the most difficult but rewarding days of her professional life. At the time, Texas was a hostile environment for union workers and anyone attempting to organize local laborers. She later recalled that sometimes workers would not even speak with her, not only because she was from a union, but because she was a woman and a Latina. In addition, government workers, whom AFSCME represented, were not permitted to join unions under Texas law. Thus, Chavez-Thompson found that much of her work required persuading state officials—and even bullying them a bit—to see things the union's way. Hardened by privation and grueling physical labor, the five-foot-one-inch Latina was more than a worthy opponent for predominantly white male State of Texas administrators. Her experiences as a youth also meant that she knew exactly how the workers she represented felt when their meager livelihood was threatened. As a result of her efforts, AFSCME saw its membership rise rapidly during this period.
Word quickly spread of the powerhouse Latina who was winning battles for workers throughout the state, and soon Chavez-Thompson was in demand for her negotiation and organizational skills. She saved the jobs of 33 community college workers by bringing about the public ouster of three trustees whose financial abuses the workers had reported. Chavez-Thompson organized emergency drivers to cover for workers on a wildcat strike, driving one of the trucks herself, and became known as a union representative who would risk arrest at protests and on picket lines to help the people she represented.
Work Led to High-ranking Labor
By the mid-1980s Chavez-Thompson had become recognized as one of Texas's finest labor negotiators as well as a rising star on the national labor scene. The Labor Council for Latin-American Advancement, a subsidiary of the AFLCIO, elected her as its national vice president in 1986, and in 1988 she was appointed vice president of AFSCME's seven-state region comprising Utah, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma.
Despite criticism from some quarters that her appointment had been merely a gesture to invigorate the "male, pale, stale" organization, Chavez-Thompson was thrilled to accept the AFSCME position. However, she was also realistic about the challenges she faced. At 13 million people, the group's membership was at a historic low, and there were no funds earmarked for new-member recruitment. In addition, there was a pervasive feeling among many workers that unions were corrupt—a sentiment that effectively kept them from joining—and little loyalty among workers who did belong. Chavez-Thompson decided that these issues were serious enough to warrant dramatic measures.
Her first action was to begin setting aside 30 percent of AFL-CIO funds for recruiting new members, and she determined that such efforts should be focused on minorities and women, neither of which group was well represented in the union. Chavez-Thompson also initiated an education program aimed at young people to teach them about the benefits of labor activism and organization. Among her successes was a recruiting drive that brought in 5,000 new members and passage of a new collective bargaining law for New Mexico public employees. In an interview with NEA Today, she explained: "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."
Praised for Saving Flagging AFL-CIO
Chavez-Thompson's drastic measures achieved good results, both in terms of increasing membership and electing more labor-friendly national leaders. In conjunction with these efforts, she also developed a campaign to get grass-roots communities—places of worship, schools, women's groups, and civil rights groups—to share a stake in the health of their local unions, reasoning that unions consist of workers who live in these other social communities. In other words, she wanted to show communities that union interests overlap with community interests. This revolutionary approach showed itself to be extremely successful in solving labor disputes, including helping K-Mart workers trying to get their first labor contract and Solomon Smith Barney cafeteria workers who were suffering retaliation for organizing a union. Nationwide, community groups that witnessed such unfair treatment were now more likely, thanks to Chavez-Thompson's efforts, to join with local labor unions to make the offending companies back down.
Chavez-Thompson was elected to the AFL-CIO Executive Council in 1993. Two years later, after almost 20 years of service, she gave up her position as executive director of San Antonio Local 2399 to accept her election as executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. In doing so, she again became the first woman and the first person of color to hold that position.
Known by now throughout the country for her skill and energy, Chavez-Thompson was appointed to serve on President Bill Clinton's Race Advisory Board in 1997 and on the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities in 1998. Chosen for a second four-year term as AFLCIO executive vice president in 1997, Chavez-Thompson was also elected in 2001 as president of the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers ORIT. The latter group had more than 45 million members in South, Central, and North America.
Chavez-Thompson, who had two children with her husband before his death, moved from San Antonio to Washington, D.C. in 1998. The labor leader remained active professionally, serving as vice chairperson for the Democratic National Committee; as a member of the board of directors of the United Way and the Institute for Women's Policy Research; a selection committee member for the International Laborer's Hall of Fame; an executive committee member for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute; and a member of the board of trustees for the Labor Heritage Foundation. When asked during an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer whether she has any aspirations for political office, Chavez-Thompson replied, "I love being the kingmaker. I don't like being the king." By 2000 her top challenge as a labor leader was to get equal pay for women and people of color. In March 2004 at the American Association of People with Disabilities' (AAPD) Leadership Gala, Chavez-Thompson was awarded with an award named after her, the Linda Chavez-Thompson Award as quoted from PR Newswire, "in recognition of her longstanding leadership toward the inclusion of people with disabilities and their families within the labor movement."
Newsmakers, Gale, 1999.
NEA Today, May 1997.
PR Newswire, March 4, 2004.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 10, 2003.
"Linda Chavez-Thompson: A Woman Pioneering the Future," National Women's History Project Web site,http://www.nwhp.org/ (December 21, 2003).
"Spotlight on Linda Chavez-Thompson," Soy Unica Web site,http://www.soyunica.gov/ (December 21, 2003).