“A Great Life”
A 61-year union veteran reflects on the life made possible by union membership.
Larry Hughes, a 61-year member of local 6A, spoke at a recent graduation ceremony at the LiUNA training center in Astoria.
A raucous crowd of journeymen laborers suddenly grew quiet as an elderly gentleman stepped to the podium. It was graduation day at the Cement & Concrete Workers LiUNA Training Center in Astoria, a joyous and loud occasion. But the man who was about to address them was Larry Hughes. In this union, at this training center, Mr. Hughes is a legend, and the laborers wanted to hear what he had to tell them.
Mr. Hughes is the still-active 80+-year old union man, a member of local 6A for over 61 years, and a founding member of the training center in Queens where the graduates had learned their skills. When Mr. Hughes speaks, union people listen. That’s because his story is both exceptional, in its arc from pastoral southern poverty to big city success, but also typical, in that degrees of his success are commonly made possible through union membership.
He told the newly-minted union journeymen, “You’re on your way to a great life for you and your families. It’s what this union can do for you, because that’s what it did for me.”
He told the graduates, "You're on your way to a great life. It's what this union can do for you, because that's what it did for me."
A still from vintage footage of concrete workers on a New York City high rise in the 1960s, when Larry Hughes joined New York Local 6A.
- Kinolibrary Archive Film Collections
Construction workers admire the completion of their work in 1970 as the first World Trade Center is unveiled.
Working his way to the top of high rises
Mr. Hughes grew up on a former plantation in Jefferson County Florida. Both of his grand fathers had been born into slavery, and the Hughes family struggled to get by in the Jim Crow south.
Despite these hardships, Mr. Hughes considers himself blessed. “I had a natural capacity for hard work. It’s something I excelled at, and I used that quality to improve my life.” He took that industrious attitude north and in 1961 he joined New York’s local 6A union, the Cement and Concrete Laborers.
He perfected his skills working on some of the city’s most iconic high rises. From 1968 to 1969 he worked the concrete trade on the construction of 1 World Trade Center that would become the tallest building in the world when it was completed. “I’m not going to lie to you, the work was hard,” he said. “But for those of us in the union, we’d showed we could do it, and we did it better than anyone.”
Like the buildings he worked on, Mr. Hughes rose to unexpected heights. He was the first African American promoted to the position of General Foreman, the top manager of all the concrete workers on major construction projects. He said it was a role that had it’s built-in troubles such as material logistics, large crews, and hard deadlines. But as a black man in a very visible leadership position in the 1970s, he faced other difficulties too, difficulties that Mr. Hughes did not want to focus on today. “There were a variety of different cultures and personalities who… let’s just say it was a bit challenging. But none of that changes my opinion that I was incredibly fortunate to have been given the opportunities I was given.”
As he climbed in the union, his family grew. “My wife and I had four children. They enjoyed the luxury of a stay-at-home mother. And all of them received a good education,” he said. Through his success, he was also able to lift his parents out of their life of poverty, helping them from unreliable housing that lacked consistent plumbing and electricity into their own Florida home with all the modern amenities.
A comparison shows the original World Trade Center, left, and its replacement, the Freedom Tower, right, both in mid-construction. Chances are good, Mr. Hughes was working the top floors when both these pictures were taken.
“I credit the union with helping me survive”
But his life was not without hardships. One of his children, Joseph Lamont Hughes, died at the age of 17 from leukemia. Mr. Hughes says it was the strength of his wife Bernice and the support of his local 6A union that helped him through his sadness. “I credit the union with helping me survive,” he says.
On September 11, 2001 he watched the World Trade Center buildings, the towers he had helped build as a young union member, fall. It devastated him, as it did all New Yorkers, but especially the men and women who had given blood and sweat to the construction of those iconic towers.
From grandson of enslaved people to the Freedom Tower
Shortly after, in 2002, Mr. Hughes partnered with two other former laborers to create a training facility in Queens for the Cement and Concrete Workers Unions. Though retired from work, the new facility was Mr. Hughes’ main passion, as he became a mentor to the young minorities entering and diversifying the union.
Then in 2013 he had an opportunity to do something special: he was asked to work on the construction of the building that would replace the Twin Towers, the new 1 World Trade Center. Mr. Hughes dusted off his laborer gear and went to work on the 63rd floor, pouring concrete and pitching in, as he always had. It’s fitting that the grandson of enslaved people is the only laborer on record to have worked on the first World Trade Center and then on its replacement, the Freedom Tower.
At the LiUNA graduation, new union member/graduate Joseph Duran listened to Mr. Hughes’ encouraging words with appreciation. Afterward, Mr. Duran said, “Larry was inspiring. I look at him, what he accomplished in his life, and, yeah, we all know the work is hard. But if you train for it, and you do it, this union can help you have a good life. He did it. He makes me believe I can do it too.”
Larry Hughes is just one more reason why Americans love unions.
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