Visionary Catalyst: Linda Chavez-Thompson
Lorenzo, Texas, native Linda Chavez- Thompson started working in the cotton fields at the tender age of 10 for a meager $.30 per hour. She did so five days a week, 10 hours a day, for three months each summer, until she married at age 20. “Growing up, I didn’t have many real expectations to excel, primarily because no one around me thought there was much of a future to do anything other than cotton farming,” reminisces Chavez-Thompson, 67. “My dream of dreams was to get a job as a sales clerk at Sears so that I could work in the cool air of a building instead of outside in the hot sun.”
Her parents, Felipe and Genoveva Chavez, were wonderful, but they could not afford to give their children the educational opportunities or even new clothing for school that the white children received. “Still, I continued to learn, and although I wasn’t able to attend the 10th grade, I educated myself by reading and studying the books that my younger brothers and sisters brought home,” she shares.
Her tenacity and drive to succeed against all odds would serve her well as she rose up the ranks to the top of one of the most powerful, well-connected organizations in the United States, one that works to provide social and economic justice for working people: the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Both of her parents watched with pride, and a little fear, as she advocated for and represented her union brothers and sisters on issues of vital importance.
“Linda has always kept a level head and knows how to make sure the things that need to get done, get done. I’m especially proud and glad she is my little sister,” says sibling Martha “Marty” Alvarado.
Beginning her social justice career in 1967 with the Laborers’ Local Union in Lubbock, Texas, Chavez-Thompson went on to serve the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in San Antonio, Texas, as the international vice president. From 1986 to 1996, she served as the national vice president of the Labor Council of Latin American Advancement, AFL-CIO. Her mother lived long enough to see her become the first person of color to hold one of the federation’s three highest offices, in 1995. She was elected executive vice president of the AFL-CIO and served in that position until 2007. She now holds the title of executive vice president emerita.
“Linda Chavez-Thompson has devoted her entire career to fighting injustice, not just in our country, but around the world. I have never seen Linda back down or shy away from a challenge. She is tenacious when it comes to standing up for what is right,” says Richard L. Trumka, AFL-CIO president.
Under Chavez-Thompson’s reign, more women and people of color were hired, promoted and elected to high level positions. During her tenure, Chavez- Thompson also created a constituency group in 1997 for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender union members (Pride at Work).
“Her commitment to making our country a better place for all Americans – fair, equal and valued – is matched by her tireless work on behalf of union workers, Hispanics, women and Democratic candidates running for office at every level,” says Alice Germond, secretary of the Democratic National Committee. “Linda is a friend, a mentor and a wonderful colleague. Our party wouldn’t be a party without her.”
Although she “retired” in 2007, Chavez- Thompson is still moving full steam ahead serving others. She is the labor representative on the Board of Trustees of the San Antonio Transit Authority; works with the San Antonio Central Labor Council, on behalf of the AFL-CIO; serves as president of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas and is a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. “I will slow down at some point,” concludes Chavez-Thompson. “But until then, I’m happy to stay in the trenches to fight for what’s right and needed to make things better for this generation and the next.”