By Jane LaTour
Jane LaTour was Director of the AUD Women’s Project and author of Sisters in the Brotherhoods (Palgrave-McMillan, 2008).
James McNamara: Uncommon Champion for Labor’s Cause
James McNamara had the best mental map among his peers for discrimination and corruption in the building trades industry and its unions. McNamara spent decades working in the precincts of multiple efforts to fight both of these evils.
On June 15th, at age 92, McNamara passed away peacefully at his home on the Lower East Side. He leaves a long and distinguished record as a champion of civil rights and an anti-racketeering fighter.
A son of the working class, McNamara’s father was a motorman for the New York City subways, and a member of the Transport Workers Union. Jim attended James Monroe High School in the Bronx, Brooklyn College, and the City College of New York. Jim’s first job, in 1951, was at Yankee Stadium selling hot dogs and peanuts—for peanuts. He organized fellow hawkers into a union and consequently lost his job. Forever after, he considered this a win. “In later life, this same kind of zeal would get him demoted by a higher class of employer”, wrote Herman Benson.
Jim worked for the Hatter’s Union for 14 years. Starting in 1953, he organized and serviced new locals in 16 States and Puerto Rico. He negotiated collective bargaining agreements, drafted and implemented contracts, among other duties.
As an International Representative for the union, he marched in Selma, Alabama with Martin Luther King Jr., after Bloody Sunday.
Jim’s career as a troubleshooter for the government began in 1966, when Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed him to serve as Director of Community Relations for Labor and Industry, in the Human Resources Administration agency. In 1968, he moved into representing the Mayor’s Office in negotiations with the building trades, community groups, and city agencies, to launch a pilot project as part of the federal Model Cities Program.
As McNamara described years later, these special projects were launched in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bronxville, the South Bronx, and East Harlem. This led to another program designed to address racial discrimination in the building trades unions – a training program as part of New York City’s Manpower and Career Development Agency (HRA). As Director from 1970-73, McNamara devised a program that was parallel to the unions’ apprenticeship programs. Every city contract included a clause that there must be one trainee for every four journeypersons in that craft. Jim recounted that, despite resistance, the program was successful in placing minorities into jobs in the building trades. Appointed by Mayor Abraham Beame, from 1973-1977, Jim served as Director of the Office of Contract Compliance, and Deputy Director of the Bureau of Labor Services. The job was to develop rules. regulations, and contract language for the city’s affirmative action programs.
In 1977, James Haughton, founder and head of Harlem Fight Back, wrote a letter
In support of McNamara being named by Governor Hugh Carey as Assistant Commissioner in the State Office of Contract Compliance. Haughton wrote,
“We have known James McNamara over the years as a fair, honest, and dedicated official, who has exercised great skill in an area of high sensitivity. Jim has been exceedingly helpful to us in opening jobs for Black and Puerto Rican workers in the building trades. He can, if so appointed, be a great asset to the State, the black and Spanish-speaking communities, and to the principle of fair play, and economic justice for all of our peoples.”
Mayor Ed Koch continued to utilize Jim’s expertise, and in 1981, he began serving as Director of the Mayor’s Office of Construction Industry Relations, coordinating the City’s activities in combating employment discrimination and extortion in the construction industries.
His diligence led to a departure when Ed Koch fired Jim and dissolved the Office. Koch was aiming higher, campaigning to become New York’s Governor, and looking for support from labor. As Murray Kempton wrote, “McNamara’s vigor became more and more of an inconvenience.” That was in 1988.
In the following year, Jack Newfield singled out McNamara as one of his “angels” in a column in the Daily News. By then, Jim was working as a consultant for the Organized Crime Task Force. “My goal’, said Jim, “is to defend the rights of workers against crooked business agents, chiseling contractors, and gangsters.” Jim was one of the founding members of the Association for Union Democracy and joined the first Advisory Board in 1969. In 2004, after retiring from remunerative employment, McNamara became Research Director for the AUD.
Humor ran like a thread through everything he did. He could always locate the levity—the irony–in his long history with the labor movement he loved being sold out by grifters and greed. Never cynical, he championed working people, and went out of his way to help those who sought his assistance. He believed in union democracy and assigned the responsibility for democratizing unions to the membership. As Tom Robbins, the legendary muckraking journalist, said when learning of McNamara’s passing: “Jim was a remarkable spirit, a labor rebel to his bones.”