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Working Within Two Cultures : Many see Linda Chavez-Thompson'selection to No. 3 post at AFL-CIO as inspired choice. Recruitment of Latinos, minorities among top goals.

October 27, 1995|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Looking out at the packed convention floor of union officials assembled before her Thursday morning, Linda Chavez-Thompson figured she'd warm up the crowd with a favorite ploy.

Beaming, the newly installed AFL-CIO executive vice president gently prodded her audience to greet her in Spanish: " Buenos dias ."

With that stroke, Chavez-Thompson--whose election Wednesday made her the highest-ranking nonwhite in the history of the American labor federation--wasn't just lightening the mood. She was embarking on a mission close to her heart: underscoring the point for longtime unionists that the time has come to welcome and recruit more Latinos, along with other minorities and women.

"That's the key to what we're doing--we want to make people feel at home in the labor movement," said Chavez-Thompson, a buoyant woman who, barely 5 feet tall, works a crowded meeting hall with the skill of a seasoned politician.

The role envisioned for Chavez-Thompson, who was elected on the insurgent ticket headed by new AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, calls for her to be a liaison to state and local labor organizations, along with women's and minority groups.

Although Chavez-Thompson, 51, has her detractors, many labor leaders who have worked with her called her an inspired choice for the role. Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, cited the " buenos dias " introduction to her speech as an example of how she deftly works within two cultures.

"She is a master at interweaving the Latino culture with the majority culture," he said. "She's a very strong, dynamic leader who simultaneously holds true to her culture, having family as a priority."

Admirers also praise Chavez-Thompson for her tactful handling of gender issues, rising above the tradition of machismo in Latino culture to become an important labor leader. Before being elected to the No. 3 post at the AFL-CIO, she was an international vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and spent most of her 27 years in unions organizing workers and bargaining for them.

"She primarily organized Latino males, but she does not come across as a threat to them," said Richard C. Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO Council in Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston.

At the same time, Shaw said, Chavez-Thompson can play tough when the situation calls for it. "She's always talking about 'kicking ass' and taking names," he said.

Shaw also noted the challenges Chavez-Thompson has faced organizing government workers in Texas, where public employees have been barred from negotiating formal labor contracts or striking. "Her appearance belies the struggle she's had in Texas just to keep the union alive. You're also fighting your own members who complain that you can't bargain a contract for us."

Facing hardship, however, has been a common theme in the life of Chavez-Thompson, a second-generation Mexican American. As a 10-year-old, she worked for 30 cents an hour picking cotton with her parents in the fields of her native West Texas.

At age 16, she dropped out of high school to help support her family. There was the divorce from her first husband and the death, in 1985, of her second husband, Robert Thompson, a longtime union local president in San Antonio.

Most recently, there was the bitter, whispered campaign against her in the AFL-CIO contest, where members of the opposing camp called her a "token."

Among other things, they derided her as an overly turf-conscious union leader who, back in the 1970s, helped undermine a strike by an independent union that competed against her local in San Antonio. And they said she lacked experience working at the top rungs of union leadership, rising no higher than vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees--one of about 35 people at that rank in the union.

Chavez-Thompson counters that she told her members not to join the strike by the independent sanitation workers union because such strikes are illegal in Texas. Moreover, she said, she was defending her union against a competitor that was dividing the workers and, in her view, weakening their bargaining position.

"Any union leader in the country is going to fight someone who is coming on your turf to destroy what you've done," Chavez-Thompson said. "And I was afraid that if our folks walked out, they'd be fired."

As for the experience issue, Chavez-Thompson says it's a plus that she was working directly with rank-and-file union members until as recently as March, when she became AFSCME's executive director in Texas.

"If you're trying to diversify our organization, we have to bring in the views of the rank and file," she said.

Moreover, Chavez-Thompson calls the suggestion of tokenism mainly the product of an overheated election campaign. "Anyone will tell you, Linda won't be a token for nobody," she said.

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