President's Corner


February 2020 Remembering Bill Dugan

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President’s Corner

In February, this column is reserved for the semi-annual State of the Union report, but I’d like to focus this month on something that deserves the attention of every Local 150 member – past, present and future.

On the morning of January 11th, I got a phone call with news that hit me like a Mack truck. At the age of 86, former President-Business Manager William E. “Bill” Dugan had passed away. Even at an advanced age and in a weakened state as he recovered from an illness that brought him to Chicago for proper medical care, hearing that Bill was no longer with us simply didn’t seem possible.

For every one of us who knew Bill, he was the personification of so many things that we valued – strength, leadership, courage, vision, and an underlying kindness and wisdom that made him truly one of a kind. He was a man that I was always proud to stand beside, and neither I nor this union would be what we are today without him. As I prepared my eulogy for his memorial service, I thought back upon his legacy – not only the tangible things he created, but also the unyielding spirit of confidence and solidarity that he instilled in the membership throughout his 64 years as a member.

Bill was born in 1933 into the most humble circumstances. As a child, he lived in a cabin with a dirt floor. His family worked in the nearby apple orchards, and Bill earned a nickel each day for hauling buckets of water to and from the orchard. After the death of his father, Bill and his mother fell upon even more difficult times and were homeless.

Living in poverty left its mark on him. Whether it was joining a union to build a career, organizing workers who had never known representation, or fighting for the best contracts in the industry, Bill worked tirelessly to help people build a better life for themselves. He used to say during the good economic times, “It’s gonna be chicken every Sunday, mama.” The simplicity of his upbringing never left him.

As I said, Bill was a courageous man. At age 16, he hid his age and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. He’d nearly completed basic training when he was found out and given an honorable discharge. Now 17, he got his mother’s written permission and joined the United

States Army. From 1951 to 1954, Bill served in Korea as a member of the 82nd Airborne. As a young organizer, I can remember freezing on picket lines in the winter, but the cold didn’t faze Bill. He would always remind me that he spent three birthdays in foxholes in Korea.

He came to Chicago with only a few dollars in his pocket, but he followed in the footsteps of some relatives by joining Local 150 in 1955. He bragged that he could run every piece of equipment there was, and I believe him. In those days, when a new piece of equipment showed up on projects, adding it to our jurisdiction was literally a matter of getting an operator into that machine before another tradesman, and Bill told stories of jumping out of a seat and running to the new machine before anyone else could get there.

Throughout the entirety of his career as a member, business agent, and later as President-Business Manager, Bill always said, “if you ain’t got your jurisdiction, you ain’t got nothin’.” He was a born organizer.

Bill was hired as a business agent in 1965 by then-President-Business Manager William Martin. Over the next 19 years in this role, Bill served the membership and saw the creation of the apprenticeship program in 1969. The formal training of apprentices, which began in 1970, was a turning point in Local 150’s history and Bill always recognized the importance of training highly-skilled workers who were then able to command higher wages and benefits.

After the retirement of Martin in 1983, Tom Rodd was appointed President-Business Manager. Respectfully disagreeing with Rodd’s vision for Local 150, Bill resigned in 1984 and prepared to run against him for President-Business Manager in the next election.

Two years later, Bill and his slate of candidates – known as the United Engineers Party – were voted into office. At this time, Local 150 had a pension fund with $468 million in assets, and our membership was fewer than 10,000 members. Bill’s first priority was organizing the industry. Not only was protecting our core jurisdiction critically important, but also organizing the various industries that worked closely with heavy equipment operators. Bill had organized the landscape industry as a business agent and knew firsthand the importance of solidarity to protecting our standard of living and bringing a union way of life to unorganized workers.

Bill hired me in 1987 as the first piece of Local 150’s Organizing Department. He sent us organizers and every business agent to train under successful organizers from around the country, because he wanted every single staff member to serve as an organizer, first and foremost.

One of the things that made Bill such a great boss was that his instincts were so good that he could clearly tell us what he wanted and give us a rough idea of how to go about it, but he would also give us the freedom to get the job done the way that we thought best. On an organizing campaign, things never go exactly as planned, and having a leader who empowered us to adapt in real time allowed us to be successful.

Using innovative methods and tools like Scabby the Rat, who first popped up at a rally in Oglesby in 1988, we showed the industry that we were willing to go on strike to get things done. That is not to be underestimated. When both sides are waiting for the other side to blink, Rule No. 1 is not to blink first. The team organized the public works, equipment rental, equipment repair, small paver, drilling, and material testing industries, not to mention scores of heavy highway contractors of all sizes.

Bill’s mantra was “organize or die,” and in 22 years as President-Business Manager, he brought the membership of Local 150 from below 10,000 to more than 23,000 when he retired in 2008.

Bill believed that using our collective power to be a force in politics was key to the advancement of our interests, regardless of whether the subject was our labor rights or the investment in job-creating infrastructure programs. He was a lifelong Republican, but he understood the value in big-tent politics that brought in friends on both sides of the aisle. If there was ever a shortage of votes for a piece of important legislation, Local 150 could be counted on to find some friendly Republicans when nobody else had the relationships to pull it off.

By building up a PAC fund and holding annual “Statesman of the Year” events, Bill raised our profile and made Local 150 a union that people paid attention to when we came knocking. Bill knew that it was important for labor to have people in seats of power, and because of his own expertise, he was appointed by Republican Governor Jim Thompson to the Illinois Development Finance Authority in 1989 and the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority Board of Directors in 1991. He was later reappointed to the Tollway Board by Governor Jim Edgar.

In addition, he also wanted Local 150 to hold influential seats within the labor movement. When a transition was upcoming at the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL), Bill recommended that Local 150 Business Agent Dennis Gannon fill the seat, which led to a Local 150 member in charge of the powerful labor federation, a tradition that continues today with CFL President Bob Reiter. Bill also served on the IUOE General Executive Board for 18 years, and people still talk about him today when I attend meetings.

Tracing back to his humble roots, Bill was a champion for advancing workers’ benefits. He brought the Midwest Operating Engineers Pension Fund from a small startup to a $3 billion juggernaut before the financial crash in 2008. He oversaw the creation of the Retiree Medical Savings Plan and the Retirement Enhancement Fund. He knew that workers are at their best when they are able to work without worry about their ability to keep their families healthy or save for retirement or a rainy day. In addition, Bill and Recording-Corresponding Secretary Steve Cisco were a formidable duo at the bargaining table, securing some of the strongest contract language and economic increases in the industry.

Finally, I want to go back to training. To continue to achieve wage increases like we had been, Bill knew that we had to be able to deliver contractors the very best operating engineers that could be found anywhere. He had a vision for a larger Training Center on a larger plot of land in Wilmington, Illinois. Trustees on the management side of the Apprenticeship Fund and those who would prove to be adversaries within the union said that it was reckless; those people said that we couldn’t afford to build it and would never be able to fill it. Bill laid his vision out to the membership, who supported him with a vote to increase dues from two percent to three percent, with the additional percent going to the funding of the Training Center. During the 2007 election of officers, his opponents ridiculed him over his plan and used it as a political weapon against him.

Fast forward to today. Bill was right. To those who said we couldn’t afford to build that facility, I would tell you that we couldn’t afford not to. People from all over the world have come to the Training Center to marvel at the way we train our apprentices. When markets collapse and industries dry up, our members can re-tool quickly and easily, and get back out to work with a new skill set. The apprentices that we’ve brought in over the past few years have blown our contractors away. Our instructors are second-to-none, and they are passing down a skill level that could never have been possible without the Training Center, which was named the William E. Dugan Training Center in 2011.

We are nearly at capacity with the Training Center right now, renting equipment to meet member demand and, sending apprentices to train at the International Training and Education Center in Crosby, Texas. We’ve doubled our training hours in only three years and have had to make tough decisions to keep our budget in line while we maintain the level and quality of training that our members need and deserve.

Bill Dugan’s legacy is everywhere in Local 150. We would never have all of this if it weren’t for him. For new members who never knew him, I hope you’ll get a feel for the kind of man he was. He would always have your back, and he would ask you to have his in return. Loyalty was the most important thing to him, and his loyalty to the membership was inspiring. Bill was as strong a union man as you could ever expect to run across. He directly improved the lives of tens of thousands of people, but he was always humble, kind and welcoming.

Local 150 is as strong as it is because Bill Dugan inspired us all to be a little more like him.

Personally, I owe a great deal to Bill Dugan. He sold me my union card, and he saw something in me – a kid – that he thought could be helpful to the union, so he gave me a chance. He gave me guidance and always had faith in me. One of the most important things he did for me was allowing me to fail, to see how not to do something so I could learn from it. He believed in letting people make mistakes, but he also reminded them not to make the same mistake twice.

Bill Dugan was so much more than my boss. More than a friend, mentor, teacher. Bill was like a father to me. My life and the life of my family is better because of Bill Dugan. When he retired and the Executive Board appointed me to replace him, I was terrified that I would make a mistake and disappoint him.

Thank you, Bill; I hope I haven’t let you down.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall.