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June 2012

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Nashville Organizer Keeps the Faith

Even as he spends two days a week witnessing anti-union tirades and bills hitting the floor of the Republican-dominated Tennessee state legislature, James Shaw keeps his faith in organized labor's future.

Shaw, a Nashville Local 429 assistant business manager and organizer, summons up the spirit of his mother and his mentors in the trade.

"I always look to my mom when facing difficult situations," says Shaw, who entered his electrical apprenticeship in the 1970s after finishing college and spending a short time as a high school teacher.

"My mother was a licensed practical nurse. I saw how hard it was for her to go to school at night for her nursing degree and work during the day," he says.

One of only a few African-Americans in the local, Shaw recalls complaining to the local's first black journeyman, Joe Haley, about racial bias on the job. Haley, who was initiated into the local in 1968, told Shaw, "You should put on my shoes and go through what I went through."

Three decades later, Shaw, who is nearing retirement, feels a kinship with Haley's approach. He now advises young apprentices and construction wiremen to stay focused on their goals and not risk their jobs reacting to others.

"Things are better for me than they were for Joe [Haley], and things are better for young members than they were for me, but we still have progress to make with some members who carry a lot of diehard negativity."

As a symbol of multiracial progress, Shaw's growing interest in the bond between the civil rights and labor movements was nurtured soon after he entered the local by a German-born white journeyman, Conrad Huetter.

While they worked together on a job, Huetter asked Shaw to tell him what he knew about A. Philip Randolph, the legendary leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Shaw drew a blank. So Huetter asked him to come back the next day with some information about Randolph. Shaw did one better. He immersed himself in black labor history.

"Conrad was one of the best union men I could ever meet," says Shaw, who recalls a dressing-down Huetter delivered about Shaw and some fellow apprentices "holding meetings at the back of the union hall" during monthly meetings instead of coming up front and participating.

"I had entered the electrical trade with one goal, to make a better living," says Shaw. Two friends had entered the building trades after college. "They had money left over at the end of the month. I was teaching and I had none."

But, after paying heed to Huetter's advice, Shaw observed that "there were avenues to make my tenure better by doing more than just paying dues."

Shaw, who had been active in his church and coached his children's sports teams, dug into local union affairs. Former Business Manager Robert Emery Sr. convinced him to volunteer for committees and, later, to run for vice president and executive board member. Shaw served on the executive board for 12 consecutive years.

"It's been a good run, with its ups and downs, but that's how life is," says Shaw. He had worked as a dispatcher and saw his local's market share drop from 35 percent to 10 percent in 2008 when eight signatory contractors who had been in an internal dispute with their national association walked away from the 1,300-member local, taking 400 members with them.

Today, Local 429 members are looking at 10 years of work on schools, a new convention center and hotel, and projects at nearby Nissan and Saturn automobile manufacturing facilities.

Despite the good work picture, Shaw and fellow organizer Quentin Tanner are still working — with some success — to win back lost members and expand into markets where the local has been weak, using new tools like alternate classifications.

"If you work in the organizing department," some members "view you as working to the detriment of journeymen," says Shaw, who patiently asks those who criticize the new classifications for alternatives that would help build the Brotherhood. He remembers Emery's advice that "as long as we're just bringing in brand new apprentices to do the work we have always done, our market share is not moving up."

"I call guys like James Shaw cornerstones of their union halls," says Tenth District International Representative Brent Hall, who says Shaw's professionalism and integrity are keys to successful organizing.

Meeting other activists from across the country as a member of AFL-CIO constituency organizations, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Shaw has become more aware of how organized labor is being targeted by groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council. He has participated in voter registration drives and education campaigns on important issues.

Tennessee is mirroring what is happening in statehouses across the country, since the Republicans' success in 2010, says Shaw. One bill would consider construction work seasonal and exempt workers in the trades from drawing unemployment benefits if they work less than 32 weeks in a year. Shaw bristles at the irony of legislators who want to expand gun carrying rights, but support measures to restrict the rights to picket on private property.

"I'm optimistic, but I'm scared to death for organized labor," says Shaw, who said he hopes public sector workers, especially teachers — many of whom voted out of frustration against Democrats in 2010 — will organize to boot some of the state's right-wing legislators in 2012.

Currently working under the leadership of Business Manager Gerald Grant, Shaw believes Grant's leadership will open doors to more progress. "We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go," he says.


Nashville Local 429 Assistant Business Manager James Shaw says, in response to right-wing attempts to undermine unions, 'I'm optimistic, but I'm scared to death for organized labor.'