Congratulations to first black ATU 689 recording secretary: 1977
Former Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689 president and then vice president of the international ATU Walter Bierwagen (left) congratulates James M. “Tommy” Thomas, Jr. (right) in January 1977 on Thomas’s election as recording secretary of the local union.
Thomas was the first black recording secretary, a full-time elected position, of the union. He would go on to become the first black president of Local 689 in 1983 and serve five three-year terms.
The photograph has some historic significance because Bierwagen was the white local union president who negotiated to integrate the operator ranks of the old Capitol Traction Company in 1954 while Thomas became the first black president of Local 689 in 1983.
Bierwagen was president of the union 1951-64 and ended the union’s long-time opposition to hiring black bus and streetcar operators in 1954 when he negotiated with the company and District of Columbia authorities to hire black maintenance employees for the initial integration of the operator ranks.
He led the seven-week strike against Capital Traction in 1955 that led to the ouster of the firm’s corporate raider head Louis Wolfson and established a principle still held today by transit workers that their labor holds intrinsic value outside the company’s bottom line.
Bierwagen became a vice president of the international ATU and played a leading role in obtaining language in the 1964 Mass Transportation Act to protect collective bargaining rights of private company transit workers whose operations were taken over by public entities.
He was responsible for both the workers’ pension plan and the provision of routine health coverage for employees.
He later insured that language was inserted in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, or Metro) compact that provided for “final and binding arbitration” for “all labor disputes.”
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 (held in January 1980 due to a court order), 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.
For a blog post on the turmoil in the D.C. transit union from 1974-80, see washingtonareaspark.com/2020/03/16/george-davis-and-the-t...
For more information and related images, see flic.kr/s/aHsmLRWRyd
The photographer is unknown. The image is from a contact print donated by Craig Simpson