We at AUD are shocked and saddened to hear of the sudden passing of Larry Hanley, International President of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). Hanley spent much of his life engaged in a remarkable effort to reform his local, ATU 726 in Staten Island, New York. That successful effort over the course of three decades led him to a position in the International ATU in 2002, and eventually he became its President, and was re-elected twice.
Upon learning of his passing, AUD co-founder Herman Benson said: “Larry Hanley was one reformer who started at the bottom, led a rank-and-file movement against a vicious establishment, and fought his way up to the top of the ATU. He showed what can be done with union democracy.”
Larry Hanley began driving a bus in 1978, at age 21, in Brooklyn, NY, and attended his first union meeting that September. He was an activist in the Transport Workers Union (TWU) during the 18 months he was a member, organizing efforts to get police protection on buses in New York City.
In November 1979, he transferred to Staten Island and became a member of the ATU Local 726. By April 1980, he was involved in his first strike and walked picket lines every day and night.
But a severe lack of union democracy plagued Local 726. That is how Hanley came to AUD.
Hanley was one of speakers that honored Benson at AUD’s 2015 Herman Benson 100th Birthday tribute “60 Years of Rebels and Reformers.” He told the audience his story. In the 1980s Local 726 was a rough place. Hanley was on the receiving end of threats and even beatings from the union higher-ups for daring to speak out at membership meetings or seeking to run for office. Larry described his local’s membership meetings as the “Friday night fights.” Assaulted and brought up on internal charges for speaking out he sought help from AUD. With Herman Benson’s guidance, he was able to fight off the slander charges against him. In a humorous anecdote, Hanley recalled that after the first meeting with Herman, he happened to mention his plans to move up and become a supervisor. Benson cursed him out: “You s.o.b.! You’ve told me the leadership is lousy, the members don’t know what to do, you just took up two hours of my time helping you, and now you’re telling me you’re going to leave the union?” But Hanley decided to stick with it. “I probably would have left if it wasn’t for you, Herman. So I’ve got one thing to say to you- you s.o.b.!”
In December, 1984, Hanley was elected secretary- treasurer of the local.
Hanley won that office because he established a reputation as a fighter for the local’s members. In March 1984, AUD reported on Hanley’s courageous efforts in Union Democracy Review (UDR) 39. In May 1984 UDR 40 reported on the plight of another Local 726 bus driver named Larry LaBrocco, one of Hanley’s former running mates and like minded reformer. LaBrocco suffered a fractured skull in the line of duty, but nevertheless the Transit Authority attempted to discipline him for “absence without leave.” The article also shows how Hanley had likewise been the victim of retaliation for his union activities.
Shortly after his election, a strike broke out in Austin, MN, at the George Hormel Company. This strike caught the attention of the media due to the anti-union climate in the Reagan administration and the brilliant tactics of the strikers. He joined the New York support group who traveled to Austin. It was defining moment in his life of activism.
He served as secretary treasurer until January 1987, when he was elected president, the youngest in his local’s history. In May, 1987’s UDR 58, we reported on Hanley’s election as President of Local 726.
Hanley would go on to be re-elected to five terms, serving until 2002. In 1989, Hanley took charge of the Staten Island operation of David Dinkins’ successful campaign for mayor of New York. Politically active throughout his career Hanley also was one of the founders of New York’s Working Families Party in 1998.
In 2002, Hanley joined the staff of the International. He was the international vice president assigned to the most locals. He negotiated the national Greyhound contract for Local 1700 that resulted in his working with ATU members in many states. He served in that capacity until his election as international president in September 2010, which we reported in UDR 188. A popular President, he was re-elected twice. Now he is gone. The labor movement has lost a great leader.
Bill Barry’s Tribute to Larry Hanley:
Bill Barry is a retired union organizer and retired Director of Labor Studies, an AUD volunteer, and author. Barry collaborated with Hanley on educational programs within ATU. Here is his tribute to his friend;
Most high union officers regard union education as a hazard which might affect what is, to them, the single most important issue in the union: their continued sinecure in office. As the president of our local Central Labor Council once asked, during my job interview to teach union training, “Why should I send anyone to your classes? They’ll just run against me for office.”
Not Larry Hanley, who passed away this week. As president of the ATU, he did not recognize this hazard, and spent more of his union’s resources on training and education than any other officer. In fact, the ATU web page lists the numbers of members—it was 7,977 as of this week—who have been trained, with some individual pictures and an extensive selection of on-line courses. The site proclaims: “We are pleased to launch the first generation of ATU Online Training Videos to help our Local leaders and members to learn new strategies to empower members to get involved, make our locals stronger, and build a more powerful ATU for the battles ahead. This is part of ATU’s ongoing effort to train as many members as possible.”
As a significant support for union education, Hanley encouraged the ATU to buy the old National Labor College, which had educated union members for decades, but which had been abandoned by the AFL-CIO Executive Board in 2014. Under Hanley’s leadership, the ATU renovated the property and offered residential classes to ATU members from the US and Canada. The new campus was named The Tommy Douglas Center, in tribute to the feisty Canadian, premier in Saskatchewan, founder of The New Democratic Party, and famous for his speech, Mouseland.
More importantly, Hanley envisioned this a physical location as a center for a broader workers movement, a kind of union “think tank.” When I taught classes there, the facilities were also offered to groups like Students Against Sweatshops, the Industrial Areas Foundation, internal organizing workshops and The Great Labor Arts Exchange.
In late 2016, Hanley bought 500 copies of my book, I Just Got Elected, Now What? A New Union Officers Handbook and then invited me to meet with him at the Douglas Center. I was immediately impressed with his commitment to union education and by his confidence that it would expand the union. I was hired to teach some of these classes and saw Hanley’s commitment to helping the members deal with the difficult challenges: the abandoning of financing for public transportation, the Janus decision, the new generation of workers hired with little knowledge of unionism. There is a challenge for union officers today and Larry Hanley was willing to meet it.
One of Hanley’s strengths was his eagerness to mix with the members. In most of the classes I taught at The Douglas Center, he would come in and meet with the participants, not as THE INTERNATIONAL PRESIDENT, lowering himself to meet with the rabble, but as a bus driver, talking with other bus drivers and mechanics. He participated in conversations, wanted to hear from the members and was a warm and modest personality. He never talked to them about his history as a union scrapper—the AUD files illustrate how he was harassed by both management and officers of his local in Staten Island—but he kept that strong commitment to membership participation.
We will not see his like again soon.
Our tribute to Larry Hanley will appear in the print edition of the Union Democracy Review #216 (forthcoming).