Two union presidents at new transit hall: 1990
James “Tommy” Thomas, Jr. (left), president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and James LaSala (right), president of the International Amalgamated Transit Union, pose outside the headquarters of Local 689 in Forestville, Maryland while it was still under construction in 1990.
Thomas was the son of a West Virginia coal miner who found work with the D.C. Transit Company in the early 1960s.
Thomas worked out of the Northern Division at 4615 14th Street NW and was known for the number of hours he put in operating a bus. That also brought him into contact with nearly every one of the 700 operators who then worked at the division.
After Metro took over the private buses In 1973, Thomas challenged Walter Tucker for shop steward/executive board member in the December 1973 union elections. Tucker was the first black voting member on the union executive board but Thomas prevailed.
In 1976 he was added to president George Davis’s slate as Recording Secretary of the union when Robert Delaney retired. Thomas won that election.
In addition to his duties as Recording Secretary, he fielded phone calls from members and worked the phones to resolve their issues. He also made regular visits into the work locations around the Metro system
Davis and his team became more unpopular as the years went by and by 1978 rank-and-file workers staged two wildcat strikes as Davis was seen weak and ineffective.
In the December 1979 union elections, two rank-and-file members with no previous union experience beat president Davis and financial secretary-treasurer Rodney Richmond by 2-1 margins. But Thomas prevailed in his contest, largely due to staying connected with the membership.
In December 1982, he challenged incumbent president Charles Boswell and beat both Boswell and former secretary-treasurer Richmond becoming the first black president of Local 689.
He would be re-elected five more three year terms ending his tenure in December 1997.
He was known for driving a hard bargain and obtaining good labor contracts for the members. He also was a taskmaster on grievances and demanded his appointed business agents research the cases thoroughly.
He used the strike threat often, but never had to call a strike.
The local had lapsed in its political clout and felt the effects of privatization of Metrobus routes that was threatening the existence of the bargaining unit.
Breaking with his predecessors, he began to mobilize the rank-and-file to oppose these politically motivated attacks, winning some battles while losing others.
In 1995-6, he led the union to defeat a plan to privatize the whole Metrobus system that was under consideration by a Regional Mobility Panel composed of transit officials and area elected leaders.
In 1990 he obtained the approval of the membership to construct union offices and a meeting hall at 2701 Whitney Place, Forestville, Maryland. It would be the first hall that the owned and they occupied it in December 1990.
After retirement he was kept on as an advisor by the new president James W. Allen, but a rivalry developed between the two and Allen let Thomas go after about a year.
He has remained active, often attending union meetings and offering his perspective.'
James La Sala devoted more than 50 years to the trade union movement and to his union, the Amalgamated Transit Union.
He began his career in the transit industry as a bus operator for the Public Service Coordinated Transport of New Jersey where he joined ATU Local 824 and was elected shop steward a year later. He rose from that position to leadership positions in the local, serving as vice president, secretary-treasurer and president/business agent.
Following his leadership of Local 824, Vice President La Sala was appointed by the international to the position of international representative, followed by appointment to the position of international vice president, a post he held until his election as executive vice president.
He was elected international president in 1985 and retired in July 2003, ranking as the second longest serving president in the ATU’s 110-year history.
He was known primarily for settling the 1990-93 Greyhound strike, establishing education seminars for ATU officers and staff, and establishing labor-management cooperation seminars on issues of common interest.
For more information and related images, see flic.kr/s/aHsmLRWRyd
The photographer is unknown, but probably John A. Thomas.. The image was donated by Craig Simpson.