New York, NY — Larry Hughes is a legend, and deservedly so. A member of New York’s local 6A union, the Cement and Concrete Laborers, since the early 1960’s, he performed the demanding work required for the job for decades, only retiring in 2000. Even after that he moved on to being an instructor in the Training Facility. He is now over 80 years old, and still going strong.
But his journey was far from easy, and his family’s history would prove to be a harbinger of things to come. He grew up on a former plantation in Jefferson County, Florida. “My grandfathers were born on the slave plantation,” says Hughes.
“My parents lived in a condition where they had to walk a quarter of a mile to get a drink of water. No plumbing facilities, no electricity,” he adds. They were sharecroppers.
But instead of sinking under the weight of such a legacy, Hughes says, “It served somewhat as a motivation, as I grew up as a teenager, as a young man, to seek a better life. Watching how hard my grandparents and my parents worked and got little reward for great effort and they were tremendous people.”
Hughes’ older brother had come up north and established himself, Hughes says with pride, and that inspired him, at 19, to follow in his footsteps. “I came into construction – my brother acquired a job for me for the summer to go to college. So, once my brother got me this job and I saw the salary – I had worked part-time, I had worked on the farms, I had worked on the family farm – and the most I had ever made was five dollars per day. And there was no limit on the hours that you worked. So coming here, and getting this job that my brother requested for me for the summer – it was almost as much per hour as it was per day. So there was an opportunity for me to change the condition of our parents. And I didn’t pass up that opportunity. And within a short period of time, they had the best quality of life, and they no longer were sharecroppers. And that was just a great, great achievement for me. Now, I had always had ambitions to – not to make construction a career – but as time passes you start accumulating, you start doing things that you didn’t really think you’d be able to do.”
Nevertheless, says Hughes, “I was denied the right to join the union. For obvious reasons. I was told that the books were closed.”
But because Hughes had been paying into the health and welfare funds through the company he had been working for, the union was deemed incapable of turning down his union membership, and the result was that Hughes was hired, even getting credit for the previous year.
And Hughes would prove how wrong the initial denial was. He rose in the union, becoming Deputy Foreman, then General Forman in ’79-’80. He was the first African American to attain this title, with all its responsibilities: overseeing crews of concrete workers on major construction projects.
In 2000 he retired. “My body started to break down. I didn’t have to retire; I could have kept going. They wanted me to continue, but you have to listen to your body. And I had done 39 years. The kids were stable, they had gone to college and I decided that was it.”
Then, while recuperating from knee surgery, he got the invitation to come to the local’s Training Facility. “And it was an opportunity to still participate, do some good, help people, and it was just one of the greatest decisions I ever made. Make a difference in peoples’ lives…although it wasn’t in the field, my knowledge, my communication, was able to have a big impact to elevating this program to one of the best in the city. We did some amazing things.”
And the level of diversity was now different than it had been in the past. Says Hughes, “Until we had this apprentice training program, the only way you got a job in our union was basically recommendations – father/son, son-in-law, you had to be recommended highly. Once we started this apprentice program which was adopted by LiUNA in 1996 I believe, it’s monitored by New York State Labor Dept. And the doors open for anyone that wants to walk in. There’s no more seclusion. Everyone gets a fair chance.”
Hughes wasn’t done with being a pioneer. After being asked to work on the Freedom Tower – he had also worked on the original World Trade Center – and turning it down due to being in his ‘60’s, he says, “I realized there was an opportunity for me to make history. So I made a request to go to work for one week. I think on the 63rd floor. I was the only union member that did it twice.”
Working on it, he says, he felt, “A combination of sadness that we lost so many people and the joy of being able to be a part of redoing it. Teaching – that was one thing, but doing the physical work for one week gave me joy.”
On the racism he encountered in his life and work, he says, “That’s a part of our American culture. Either you decide how you’re gonna live with it, or you’re not. If one wants to be successful, and accomplish things, you’ve got to figure out how to live with it. Because you can’t escape it. You really can’t. And I had the good fortune through my genetics, I guess, and training, that I never allowed it to hinder my goals. I never allowed the racism, the mistreatment, the having to have to work twice as hard as someone else – it never bothered me, I felt that I was just fortunate enough to have the ability to do it. And the character and the discipline to work through all the stuff that came my way.
Having said all that, I was privileged to meet some of the most amazing people that stepped up and fought for justice on my behalf. That allowed me to think that there are good people everywhere. There’s been many a situation where people stepped up to fight for my rights. I met some of the most amazing people. As tough as it was, and I kid you not, the journey was very difficult, but on any journey, there is good. And I met some good people along the way.”
1 thought on “Larry Hughes: Cement and Concrete Laborers, Local 6A”
I still can remember it all vividly, when we[ apprentices- we broke that school down to start anew ] walked into that very building where Larry is standing, and Carmine Detello[another great pedagogue( oh my, we can’t forget about Dennis O’Gorman!)] gave me a sledge hammer to break down the walls…- to make more room…
Hughes’s insight about the business was lucid. And all of the students appreciated his voice and seriousness…I got into the training center knowing nobody. And my humble thanks goes to my State, for providing me[us] with a training center that has open doors FOR ALL.
If there’re two things that I learned about the Union, there are :
1. The union is the American way !
* 2. Show– union– support by attending rallies/ picket lines etc. -REMEMBER, our adversaries hate our training center.ie., we can never take a nap ! – FIGHT THE POWER ! [our organizers are doing a great job !]
Hamilton Pagan [ Local 20 Cement And Concrete Workers]
LIUNA! – Union strong !
GOD BLESS America