By Peter McDermot
Terence M. O’Sullivan is one of the much-heralded new breed of labor officials — but he’s one with a sense of the past.
Earlier this year the general president of the 800,000-member Laborers’ International Union of North America was invited to dedicate a monument to the 50 Irish immigrants who died while building the Alton and Sangamon Railroad in the 1850s. For San Francisco native O’Sullivan, though, the six foot Celtic Cross at Funk’s Grove cemetery in Illinois is as much a reminder that many workers, a lot of them immigrants, are still placed in life-threatening conditions.
The 44-year-old LIUNA general president has dedicated his life to improving the lives of such workers.
“I’m at my desk [in the union’s Washington D.C. offices] at 6 a.m. and am here until 6 p.m.,” he said.
Colleagues attest to his hard work and drive. “What’s more important, I think, is Terry’s depth of character,” said Ray Pocino, a Laborers’ vice-president. “He’s a visionary; he’s been called to this work.”
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O’Sullivan, married with a 13-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter, spends half his time on the road.
“I have a very supportive wife,” he said. “This week I was in Atlantic City for a conference. Last week it was Chicago.
“The true strength of the union is in the field. You have to keep your finger on the pulse.”
LIUNA’s nine regions cover the area from Eastern Canada, including Newfoundland, to the Pacific Southwest with its high concentration of immigrant labor.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to the immigrants of yesterday and the immigrants of today for making this the great industrialized country that it is,” he said. “The Irish never got the credit that they deserved. The Latinos are fighting today for the same things — dignity, respect and a decent life for their families.
“The current system is broken. It must be fixed to give immigrants full workplace rights.”
O’Sullivan strongly backs measures proposed by Rep. Luis Gatierrez of Illinois designed to protect the rights of undocumented workers. New York’s Rep. Joseph Crowley and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey are also vocal supporters of the proposed legislation.
O’Sullivan and LIUNA say that the United States, with its low rate of union membership in construction, has a large sector of poorly paid workers, many of them doing difficult and dangerous jobs. Union membership, they say, means decent wages and a better trained workforce. It also means, O’Sullivan believes, young people seeing construction as a career and not just a seasonal job.
Terry O’Sullivan grew up in the labor movement. His father, Terence J., whose parents were from outside Kilorglin, Co. Kerry, was LIUNA general secretary-treasurer. “Dad was no. 2 in the union,” O’Sullivan said. “He was also away much of the time.”
The O’Sullivans, both San Franciscans with Kerry roots, moved their family to Washington, D.C., when the current Laborers’ boss was 14. Beginning in high school, the younger O’Sullivan worked for periods in Washington’s subway tunnels. In his last year at American University, he opted to work full time in the tunnels, studying for his business administration degree at night.
During his rise in the ranks of the union he joined in 1974, O’Sullivan has seen it expand beyond its traditional construction base into hazardous waste remediation, health care, maintenance and the public sector. Just as he assumed office on Jan. 1, the Department of Justice acknowledged that the union had been successful in ridding itself of the influence of organized crime. “The Laborers’ is the most open and democratic union there is,” O’Sullivan said. “We have the reform process to prove it.”
O’Sullivan’s dynamic leadership is being noted in the labor movement. He will be the honoree at the annual dinner of the Labor Research Association held on Oct. 12 at the Hilton Hotel in New York. The keynote speaker will be House minority leader Richard Gephardt,
O’Sullivan is happy to return the compliment. “All of the opportunities I’ve gotten in life were because of the union,” he said.