Labor Day 2006 is the perfect day to remember a distinguished old-school gentleman who left his very important mark on the Illinois trade union movement, and the civic affairs of Chicago, for more than four decades. He was a tough but dignified leader who spoke plainly and was honest and straightforward in his dealings. He would look out for the interests of his union members, but also realized that a really successful negotiation was one that benefitted all concerned to the best degree possible over the long run. He knew that give and take were essential and compromise was not a sign of weakness. William A. Lee was the last of a generation that did business on a handshake, and his word was his bond.
Bill Lee was born April 11, 1895 in the old Irish neighborhood of Taylor and Racine on the West Side of Chicago. He started working part-time in the shipping room of The Ward Bakery Company when he was only 15. He graduated from St. Ignatius High School and went to work for the bakery full-time driving a horse-drawn wagon just as his father before him had done. In 1915 at the age of 20, he joined Bakery Drivers Local 734. After service in the US Army during World War I, Bill Lee worked in various offices for Local 734 until he was elected local president in 1929. By 1946 at the age of 51, he was a vice president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). He became president of the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) in 1946 and served in that post almost 38 years until his death in June 1984 at age 89.
Bill Lee took the leadership of the CFL in a new direction to more fully integrate union leaders in the complete range of civic and political affairs of the city. Lee was willing to serve on many boards and commissions such at the Park Board at the request of Mayor Martin Kennelly (1947-1955), Mayor Richard J. Daley (1955-1976), and Mayor Mike Bilandic (1976-1979). It was this extra effort to be part of the full civic life of the city that also gave Lee better leverage and intelligence in labor negotiations. Bill was also a staunch supporter and organizer of the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade.
Bill Lee's working relationship with Mayor Richard J. Daley was a particularly effective partnership. Lee became known not for confrontation, but for the strikes he helped to either shorten or to avert all together among transit workers, teachers, fire fighters, and even musicians. The "handshake" deals that Lee negotiated with Daley and other officials gave trade union members working for government agencies the same hourly wages paid to construction workers in private industry. In practical terms, this really meant a bonus of 15 to 30 percent to union members who were government workers because they got more benefits than their counterparts in the private sector and did not have to worry about seasonal layoffs. Slots for electricians and plumbers for local government were the prize plumbs that went to Daley loyalists who often did double duty as officers in locals and that made the alliance stronger.
Daley got what he wanted, a handshake deal that kept Union members happy without a written multi-year contract. That gave the city some flexibility to adjust city budgets for lean and good years. Bill Lee also got what he wanted, better wages and benefits over time. By serving on the Park Board, Lee was in a better position to keep watch on the welfare of union workers in various municipal agencies. In 1978, Bill Lee sold off radio station WCFL (Chicago Federation of Labor) to Mutual Broadcasting to free up cash for other investments. WCFL had long been the only radio station in the country owned by an alliance of labor unions.
Unfortunately, the unstable intentions of the Jane Byrne administration from 1979 to 1983 led many unions to demand that everything must be in writing. Byrne at first wanted to end the old agreements and she did not reappoint Bill Lee to the Park Board. Under Byrne, the phrase "handshake agreement" took on a negative meaning it never deserved and never had when Bill Lee and Mayor Richard J. Daley were working together. The two men understood each other and both wanted what was best for the city. Eventually Mayor Byrne realized she needed the goodwill of Bill Lee and he was back on the Park Board by the end of her one term in office.
In national union affairs, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) merged in 1955 into the AFL-CIO with the aid of Chicago labor law attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg (see previous post on Goldberg). As a vice president of the IBT, Bill Lee and some allies courageously tried but failed to stop James R. Hoffa in 1957 from becoming the IBT president. Even after the IBT was kicked out of the AFL-CIO, Lee always kept on good terms with IBT officers in Illinois and often included them in general consultations about the welfare of union workers in Illinois. He gave the IBT local leaders the same respect he gave to full affiliates of the CFL.
Bill Lee died on June 16, 1984 at the age of 89 while he was still president of the CFL. He was listed in the Union Hall of Honor of the Illinois Labor History Society two years after his death in 1986. Several years ago, the Chicago Federation of Labor named a scholarship program in honor of Bill Lee that is open to children of union members affiliated with the CFL. Each William A. Lee Scholarship recipient is given $1,500 toward the cost of college expenses. To see a list of the ten winners for 2006, see the Chicago Federation of Labor press release page.