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Shattering The Afl Cio's Glass Ceiling

News: Analysis & Commentary: PEOPLE


Linda Chavez-Thompson learned at age 16 how to stage a job action. One of eight children born to dirt-poor sharecroppers in Lubbock, Tex., she was elected by her siblings to present their dad with a demand--he had to allow their overworked mother to stay home from picking cotton and get some rest. Otherwise, the kids would refuse to work. "I just walked right in there," she recalls. "But I was sweating the whole way." Her dad acquiesced, boasting later that his daughter was a born labor leader.

Today, the 51-year-old Mexican-American is still standing up for solidarity. She now represents 13 million American workers as the first executive vice-president of the AFL-CIO, a new position ratified by the organization on Oct. 25 after a bitter election battle. And she faces an even tougher fight convincing critics that she's more than a token appointment in a hierarchy that remains mostly white and male.

OUTSIDER. No woman or Hispanic has ever held such a high office in the AFL-CIO's 109-year history. In appointing Chavez-Thompson, the union is trying to respond to changes that have made women and minorities organized labor's fastest-growing segments. Massachusetts Institute of Technology labor expert Thomas A. Kochan calls her election "essential" to recruiting a more diverse AFL-CIO membership. Adds new AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney: "I wanted someone for my executive vice-president who lived and worked outside of Washington. Someone who knew what it was like to go door-to-door organizing and to come home at night dead-tired and foot-sore."

Labor is fighting tough demographic trends. Membership in the AFL-CIO, a federation of 78 unions, has sunk to 15.5% of the workforce, down from 35% during its heyday in the 1950s. In the past decade, men have slipped from 67% of all union workers to 60%. Meanwhile, women have increased their union membership from 33% to 40%. Blacks now account for 15%, Hispanics 8%.

Chavez-Thompson's mission: tap the growth markets. On Oct. 31, her first day in Washington, she outlined a vague but ambitious plan to reach out to disaffected workers traditionally neglected by the upper ranks of organized labor. Among her responsibilities are coordinating with more than a thousand state federations and central labor councils and leveraging the lobbying power of AFL-CIO support groups such as the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Plus, she will try to pull in new members by forging coalitions with women's and civil rights groups.

Sweeney plans to boost spending on such grassroots organizing seven-fold, to $20 million a year, about one-third of the AFL-CIO's budget. "We need to convince [nonunion] workers that we are the voice that will not back down," says Chavez-Thompson.

Supporters say Chavez-Thompson is well-suited for the job. She's tough as nails, having forged a career as a union organizer for the expanding American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in union-wary Texas. Associates say she combines a talent for schmoozing power brokers with a steely resolve on workers' rights. In 1980, for instance, she helped save the jobs of 33 workers at a San Antonio junior college by organizing a drive to oust three college trustees.

FEELING HEAT. As an early campaign supporter of former Texas Governor Ann W. Richards, Chavez-Thompson wasn't shy about making use of her access to the governor. One example: In 1992, she enlisted Richards to kill a proposal that would have weakened sentencing guidelines for assaulting correctional officers, who are AFSCME members. And her militancy is in step with the new tone being set at the AFL-CIO by Sweeney and his No.2, former United Mine Workers President Richard L. Trumka. As recently as Aug. 31, Chavez-Thompson landed in jail on civil disobedience charges while demonstrating with hotel workers in San Francisco.

Still, Chavez-Thompson faces a daunting challenge. She has taken heat for deigning to run for the newly created $165,000-a-year job, which critics consider a waste of money. Others doubt she has the experience to do the job. "In the two years that she's served on the AFL-CIO executive council, she's only spoken once," grouses one vice-president.

But Chavez-Thompson discounts the criticism. "I've walked, talked, and done everything a labor leader has needed to do to protect her workers. I'm not ashamed," she says. If labor is to regain its place as a major political force, it must unite and expand, she says. Once again, the sharecropper's daughter must show she can drive a hard bargain.


AGE: 51

HOMETOWN: Lubbock, Tex.

BACKGROUND: Mexican-American; daughter of a sharecropper. Began picking cotton at age 10 for 30 cents an hour. Joined the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) as a field rep in 1971. Rose to become executive director of Texas council. Now, executive vice-president at the AFL-CIO.

QUOTE: "I'm a woman and I'm tan and I'm from Texas. I represent the America that organized labor has tended to overlook."By Mary Beth Regan in Washington

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