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Louie Wright, President and Business Manager of Fire Fighters Local #42, with former Governor Roger Wilson, the master of ceremonies for the evening’s testimonial dinner.

On Friday night Labor’s Educational and Political Club Independent (LEPCI) held a testimonial dinner honoring Louie Wright, President and Business Manager of Fire Fighters Local #42, as “Labor’s Representative of the Year” for 2008 at Harrah’s in Kansas City. The crowd of approximately four hundred heard a number of speakers, including Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver, Congressman Dennis Moore, Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser, Kansas City – Kansas Mayor Joe Reardon, UFCW General President Joe Hansen, Kansas City AFL-CIO President Bridgette Williams, Building Trades Business Manager Gary Kemp, and Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

As with all of these events, there was a modicum of levity in the evening’s activities, but there was also a good amount of serious discussion about the challenges we are currently facing in the country and the state.      

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders.

Senators Chris Koster and Victor Callahan present Louie Wright with a proclamation from the Missouri Senate.(left to right) Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver, Congressman Dennis Moore, Louie Wright, former Governor Roger Wilson.

Louie Wright addresses the audience.

Louie Wright’s remarks:

I’m not quite sure what to say. I am, I am, I am humbled. I am honored. Candidly, I’m a little bit embarrassed. I’m not sure I knew the guy that a lot of them talked about. [laughter]…I really appreciate your endurance sitting through this long evening. To my brothers and sisters in the broader labor community, I appreciate greatly you’re here, the tribute. Particularly, the brothers and sisters in my union, my local and the region, you hear too much from me on a regular basis so I won’t bore you with anything. To my friends up here, and Joe means a lot, Harold it goes without saying, Congressman Cleaver all, everyone up here. I’d also like to thank my daughter from traveling from New York, to be here…[applause] And my son…on a Friday night…[laughter][applause]

And what I’d like to do, which may be a little out of the ordinary, is, is speak almost exclusively in the next ninety seconds to the elected leaders, the public policy makers here. And say a couple of things. One is, it is really hard to recognize the person a lot of these folks were talking about.

I’ve had a charmed life. I have been luckier than most. And, and have had the benefit of, most every day, having two great professions and vocations, that I felt good about the work. I love the work that I’ve done and continue to do.

But I want to say this, you’ve heard a little bit from Joe, and certainly, the way things started out for me. And I’m not complaining, but to the elected leaders and the public policy leaders, the fact is, we lost track, I think, of the importance of appropriate government assistance. Someone mentioned the Emergency Employment Act [in 1972] and, and most of you didn’t know what that was. Out of high school I was declared a hard core unemployable by the Federal government, that’s what made me eligible to be hired by the fire department. That meant I had all the attributes of a career criminal, but a felony convictions. [laughter] It was a government program that allowed me to get employment. It was good employment. Luckily, employment that had a good union.

I learned about the labor movement, and I’m gonna close in a moment with a comment about Bill Richardson and a couple of other mentors I’ve…

But it was good employment with a good union. That meaningful work allowed me to make my way. The union has provided me opportunities the likes of which I never would have seen, never would have had, frankly, never would have known about.

We need to get back, in my opinion, to a vibrant, thriving, active labor movement. [applause] We need to recognize that government has a role in giving people a hand up and an opportunity. And maybe get back to doing more than that. And if it can keep a guy like me off the street for thirty five or thirty six years and beyond, it may be worth the occasional investment.

Also I learned early on the power of organized labor when they supported each other and they were really together. And Bill Richardson was one of three individuals, and there were many more, but three leaders who didn’t have a dog in the fight in 1980. Their unions were working. Fact, it was alleged that we might have put up a couple of illegal picket lines that they honored. But the fact is, they didn’t have a dog in the fight, but they knew what organized labor could do.

My good friend…was fired. I was in jail. And frankly we were in a very difficult time. Worse than we probably knew.

Three people met on the twenty ninth floor of City Hall. I wasn’t there, I was, a guest of the city in another location.[laughter] Man I wish was here tonight, Sam Long, Bill Richardson, Bob…as I recall. They told the mayor, they told the city manager, and they gave the governor a civics lesson. They told Joe Teasdale he could declare martial law. And he said, “Can I really do that?” They said, “Oh yeah, governor.” He looked at his counsel and he said, “Can I really do that?” “Oh yeah, governor.” And they quickly told the city, “You need to settle this.” Sam Long looked out the window, there’s quite a bit of work going on in Kansas City that time. He said, “Governor, Mr. Mayor, Mr. Manager, see that green crane over there on top of that building, and all those others around the skyline? My union’s not that big, but that’s where my people work. And if those firefighters aren’t out of jail Monday morning, back to work, with a contract in hand, I’m shutting that job down. And every job where those cranes are. And it’s not that big a union, but every job I shut down, fifteen other crafts will honor that picket line. By eleven o’clock you’ll have thirty five thousand angry building and construction trade union members down here wanting to know why they’re not getting a day’s pay.” An hour later it was settled.

Organized labor coalesced behind a union that was maybe too dumb to even know what we were doing. But we were all doing it together. And it gave me an important lesson. And Bill, sometimes you reap what you sow. But for that intervention there’s no doubt in my mind I wouldn’t be here tonight.

It’s an honor. It’s a privilege. And I’m truly touched. Thank you very much. [applause]          

Bill Richardson, president of LEPCI, with Louie Wright.