Larry Hanley Was a Transformational Labor Leader. He Will Be Missed.

Larry Cohen May 9, 2019

Rest in power, Larry Hanley. (ATU)

On May 7, while recov­er­ing from an ill­ness, Amal­ga­mat­ed Tran­sit Union (ATU) Inter­na­tion­al Pres­i­dent Lar­ry Han­ley died sud­den­ly. In a brief state­ment, his fam­i­ly, quot­ing Mary G. Har­ris Moth­er” Jones, urged us to: Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

Lar­ry was an amaz­ing friend, broth­er, com­rade and union builder. He was mod­est, espe­cial­ly for an inter­na­tion­al union pres­i­dent. But what made Lar­ry unique was his com­mit­ment to grass­roots coali­tion build­ing. He orga­nized rid­er coali­tions, bar­gained for the pub­lic good, ini­ti­at­ed pro­gres­sive bal­lot mea­sures and embed­ded the issue of cli­mate change in the pol­i­tics of the ATU. More than any­thing else he defined union polit­i­cal action as trans­for­ma­tion­al and not just transactional.

Lar­ry was elect­ed pres­i­dent of his union nine years ago as an insur­gent demand­ing insti­tu­tion­al change. For many of us elect­ed to union or pub­lic office, the focus is on our own career or jour­ney. Nev­er for Larry!

Yes, he was hon­ored to lead his union — his life’s work for 40 years, dur­ing which he went from Stat­en Island bus dri­ver to local pres­i­dent to staff rep­re­sen­ta­tive and then Inter­na­tion­al Pres­i­dent. But I nev­er saw Lar­ry lim­it his imag­i­na­tion and vision for ATU to the imme­di­ate gain at the expense of real long-term change. He is a mod­el for all of us to aim high­er, with our actions and not just our words. 

Lar­ry was deeply proud of the coali­tions with pub­lic tran­sit rid­ers that his union pio­neered, start­ing in Chica­go. I recall him describ­ing that work at an AFL-CIO Exec­u­tive Coun­cil meet­ing a few years before the Chica­go Teach­ers Union pop­u­lar­ized bar­gain­ing for the pub­lic good. Lar­ry under­stood that if tran­sit work­ers unit­ed with the rid­ers, they could not be stopped. This meant fight­ing to expand the ben­e­fits of mass tran­sit and keep fares low, as much as it meant high­er pay or benefits. 

Lar­ry under­stood that the very exis­tence of mass tran­sit depend­ed on those rid­ers who most depend­ed on it, most often Black, Lati­no and immi­grant work­ers. Lar­ry act­ed and preached to ATU mem­bers that mobi­liz­ing the sup­port of rid­ers and the com­mu­ni­ty were key to the union’s future suc­cess — not just tra­di­tion­al polit­i­cal action. In oth­er words, the union was bar­gain­ing not just for its mem­bers but for the col­lec­tive good. This is a vision for orga­niz­ing based on open­ing the con­tract process up to rid­ers and the com­mu­ni­ty writ large, so they too can par­tic­i­pate in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, as the rid­ers might have demands that the union failed to see.

Across the nation, ATU ini­ti­at­ed bal­lot mea­sures as a strat­e­gy to off­set the pow­er of tran­sit and polit­i­cal man­age­ment and their efforts to pri­va­tize and cut ser­vices. While bal­lot mea­sures like those to increase the min­i­mum wage are sup­port­ed by many unions, Lar­ry was will­ing to work to pass bal­lot mea­sures that includ­ed high­er tax­es to fund mass tran­sit growth, going against con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that vot­ers would not vote to pay for tran­sit growth.

More than any oth­er union pres­i­dent, Lar­ry under­stood that cli­mate change is a threat to our very exis­tence. Invest­ing in mass tran­sit as opposed to expand­ing car­bon-inten­sive trans­port fun­da­men­tal­ly ben­e­fits ATU mem­bers and their jobs. But Lar­ry spear­head­ed the cre­ation of an ATU com­mit­tee on cli­mate and was will­ing to push back against any­one who denied the dis­as­trous impact of fos­sil fuel expan­sion, while fight­ing just as hard to expand unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits and to pro­vide a path to good pay­ing jobs for those dis­placed in the tran­si­tion to renew­able ener­gy and a sus­tain­able economy.

Car­ry it on” is a slo­gan often employed at moments like this. We mouth the words, but soon the pain of a dear one’s death pass­es and we return to nor­mal­cy. For me, rad­i­cal accep­tance of the death of a com­rade has meant chang­ing some­thing that I do, as small or as hard as that may be. In Larry’s case, his mem­o­ry and spir­it pro­vide many options — I will try to smile as I choose one in his mem­o­ry and his name.

Lar­ry Cohen chairs the board of Our Rev­o­lu­tion and is a mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee, vice-chair of the Uni­ty Reform Com­mis­sion, and mem­ber of the 2020 con­ven­tion rules com­mit­tee. He is the past pres­i­dent of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca and was a senior advi­sor in the Bernie 2016 campaign.
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