On February 21, Lucille Dickess died at the age of 79. Lucille worked as the registrar of the geology department at Yale University and served as the president of the clerical and technical workers union, Local 34. (This photo of Lucille was taken by Virginia Blaisdell.)
I can still remember the first time I saw and heard Lucille speak. It was at a rally on Beinecke Plaza, I think in the spring of 1991. She had white hair, looked like a suburban grandmother, and breathed fire. I had always thought of union workers as burly white guys. I never thought that again. She was, to me, what the labor movement at its best is about: transcending easy and lazy stereotypes of who we are, forging the most unexpected solidarity among men and women who are so different from each other in so many way. And she was very funny. I’ll miss her.
The New Haven Independent (h/t Zach Schwartz-Weinstein) has published some excerpts from an interview with Lucille. If you want a sense of how radicalizing an experience joining a union can be, you should read all of it. (And keep in mind that Lucille had been a scab before she joined the union.) Here are some highlights:
I had totally rejected the UAW because they told us they were going to do it, and not to worry about anything. “Sign the card, we’ll take care of everything.” When HERE [Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union] came in, it was different. With HERE it came down to, “This will be your union, and you’ll have to make of it what you will.” Now, none of us knew anything about unions, really, so this was an amazing step we took, just to say, “The worst thing here are job descriptions and salaries.” But how in the world do you fix that? Where do you begin to fix that?
Well, the HERE organizers said, “You have to talk to everybody,” and that made sense to me.
I loved the structure. Loved it. I just loved it. I’m responsible for sixty-one people. I know who’s got trouble at home, who’s got trouble at work, who’s being threatened. This was so satisfying, mathematically, and physically, and emotionally, and practically. A lot of people were very afraid to get involved. I was hearing from people, “I’m afraid I’ll get fired.” “I don’t know anything about unions.” “You have to pay union dues.” “I’ll get in trouble.” “Nobody else here is interested, it’s only me.” There were probably as many reasons as there were people, when you got right down to it.
Right after I became president of Local 34, I was invited to a Local 35 membership meeting so people would get to meet me. I told them that I had scabbed. Because I’d been asked to work in dining halls when one of the strikes was on. I was just divorced, there was no sign of any child support coming in, and also my husband had signed bankruptcy, so everybody in the world was coming after me for all of these bills he hadn’t paid, and I still had one child at home. So I didn’t give a thought to the fact that people were out on strike – all I thought was, I can make some extra money. And I went into dining halls and I scabbed, I told them.
I just wanted them to know: don’t ever write anybody off, because I changed. I came all that way from non-thinking, not knowing, and I learned, and so here’s where I am now. So a lot of people were not too thrilled to hear me say this, but afterwards Tom (Gaudioso) said to me, “I’ve got to give it to you: you had a lot of balls to say that to them.” And I said, “Well, I wanted them to understand somehow that when we were crossing their lines, we weren’t thinking, we weren’t conscious of what was going on, and shame on us that we didn’t find out about it. But once we did, we learned: here’s how you do.”
35 was always a model to me. They really were. To accept us, who had crossed their lines for so many years – to accept us as their partners, to work together and never mind our differences, to put aside all that resentment and hurt and join together so closely that we were really brothers and sisters.
Years later, I bumped into (a woman from the picket line) and she said, “You know, that was the most wonderful thing I ever did in my entire life.” And I would bet, if you went around and asked everybody who was out on the line in that strike, you’d have 95% of them say the same thing. Absolutely. Because you were taking the power yourself.
Update (March 2, 7:30 pm)
David Sanders, with whom I organized at Yale and who is now a union organizer up in Canada, posted a reminiscence of Lucille on my FB page. I wanted to share part of it here:
I have two memories in particular of Lucille. One was her retirement speech where she said: “First I was a daughter, then a wife, then a mother but I didn’t become a woman until I became a sister in the union.”