February 27, 2019

The History of Painters Local 1332

In the early 1900s, Chicago’s Black union members of the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of America, now known as the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, worked under difficult and extremely discouraging conditions. The exploitation and abuse of the Black-American worker was rampant and widespread among homeowners and the commercial bosses that employed them at the lowest possible wages.

Although the AFL preached a policy of egalitarianism in regard to Black-American workers, in actuality it discriminated against the Black workers. The AFL sanctioned the maintenance of segregated locals within its affiliates―particularly in the construction and railroad industry. This practice often excluded Black workers altogether from union membership and thus from employment in organized industries.

In 1919, a group of Black craftsmen, including Al Wright, L. Cass and M.C. Roberts, joined Painters Local #191 and began informing unorganized Black craftsmen of the benefits of the organized labor movement. Russell Wright, L. Cass. Samuel Younger Sr., T. W. Stevens, T. R. Banks, the Eubanks Brothers, L.P. Lindolph, who at the time was Secretary-Treasurer of Painters District Council 14, Arthur Wallace, and International Organizers Al Gurpner and A.C. Anderson all came to Chicago’s Southside to organize Painters Local 1332.

Founding members of Local 1332

On Aug. 20, 1920, Painters Local 1332 was granted its own charter with the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators, and Paperhangers of America. Unfortunately, there are no charter members of this local still living today.

“We were named the Negro Local because back then District Council 14 was made up of different ethnic locals, the same as our communities,” said Larry Thomas, current Business Representative/Organizer from Local 1332. “After the local got its charter, we were appointed a representative from our local, Mr. Ted Callion. However, Mr. Callion wasn’t actually allowed to speak for us because Local 191 was the White local who was appointed to oversee us.”

Local 1332 meeting during the 1970s

By the late 1970s, Robert Holder, a member of Local 1332, wanted to run for Business Representative, to give the Black members of the local an opportunity to have their voices heard directly, not through a White representation. So, in 1979, Holder ran for election with the help of the younger local members, and he became Local 1332’s first elected Representative. He remained Business Rep until 2004, when Thomas took his place. Thomas is only the second Black elected representative of Local 1332.

Thomas grew up the youngest of 17 brothers and sisters on Chicago’s South Side. His first job, at the age of 18, was painting vacant apartments at the Germano-Millgate Apartments at 87th and Burley in the South Chicago community.

In 1976, Thomas’ brother told him about a program at the Chicago Urban League which had Urban Progress Centers that were stationed throughout the state in different neighborhoods for the purpose of helping with outreach programs, job opportunities, and other resources. He was placed in a program called the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), a program to help low-wage and under-skilled youth find better employment.

Thomas stated, “The CETA program was there to help poor Black and poor Whites excel. In 1976, I took the test and was told to pick a trade. Well, I was already painting, so I wanted to continue painting. I worked with the journeyman workers who were teaching me how to do it. By the time I became a journeyman, I was making $8.60 an hour. I had benefits and everything. Then I became a full fledge member of Local 1332 in 1980.”

What sets Local 1332 apart is what Thomas describes as the “Black microphone.”

“Our local was one of the places for the Black microphone to be used. We use it to empower, to make sure every Black person regardless of where you come from, has an opportunity to excel. One thing that makes Black folks come together is what we can say to each other. If I’m talking to them about discrimination or the values of what we are supposed to have, we show up. The other locals can’t do that. That is the power of the Black microphone.”

Thomas went on to say the union hall was the place Black union members could elevate within their union. Their meetings were always about Black empowerment and earning the right to be there.

“When I started, no young bucks were allowed into the meeting room. You had to graduate to that. That’s where the ‘each one teaches one’ comes from. If I teach you how to be an activist, you will embody that, and you will teach the next one. It was about Black empowerment and graduating to the next level. It isn’t to be disruptive; it’s to make sure we are all included.”

In addition to empowering their members, Local 1332 along with the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the NAACP worked to elect Black people to various offices across the city, county and state. One of the more famous elected officials to spend time at Local 1332 was former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.

“Our rule was to never give someone our power. We do not create politicians to make them famous, we hold politicians to what we elected them for. You have to earn the right to want to be a part of us.”

Mike Dixon and Larry Thomas

As Thomas progressed in his local, he noticed that within the District Council as well as at the international level, the leadership of the Painters union was all White. So, he challenged the leadership at the time and continues to challenge them today to select a Black person in their local to be a delegate. Since then there has been some changes within the IUPAT. In addition to Thomas serving as a Business Rep. on Painters District Council 14, Kenneth Rigmaiden was unanimously elected General President of the IUPAT General Executive Board in March 2013. President Rigmaiden is the first Black person to serve in this capacity.

Thomas continued, “The union is supposed to look like the people. All the people. And everybody is supposed to be given an opportunity. And you fight for everybody. So if I’m an elected union representative, and I go to a job, and I can see that it is predominantly White or predominantly Black, I tell the contractors they have to mix this up a bit. They have to hire a couple of Whites, a couple of Black, and some women. That’s why our union teamed up with different organizations. Our union teamed up with [Chicago] Women in the Trades. They have to have an opportunity too.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report Union Members―2018, Black workers have the highest likelihood of being union members than White, Asian, or Hispanic workers. 

“Like the industry, Black folks get lost now in minority participation because we don’t want to have an honest conversation,” said Thomas. “Why should it make you uncomfortable to have a conversation? I’m going on my 39th year in the union. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I’m uncomfortable in the union because everything I attend is all White. I’m the only Black in the room. When I’m uncomfortable, I lean in. I say, ‘Tell me more about it.’ If I can get you to feel comfortable enough to talk to me, you are going to learn a little more about Black people.”