Augusta Thomas, 87, sets the pace at AFGE

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

When Augusta Thomas told her big family in Louisville that she was going to run for a national labor union office last year and move to Washington alone if she won, she recalls some of them saying, "You're losing your mind. Do we need to take you to see a psychiatrist?"

Perhaps that's a reasonable response to a woman who soon will be a great-great-grandmother, born when Warren G. Harding was president; a woman who once locked a young Martin Luther King Jr. in a furnace room.

The 87-year-old Thomas is remarkable in part because of her age, but she is not defined by it. If she were, she might not have been elected in August to a three-year term as national vice president for women and fair practices at the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

As she campaigned during the union's convention in Reno, Nev., she said a young member came to her and said: "'Augusta, the word's out. You're too old. Can you do the job?' "

Her answer: "I challenge each and every one of you to come and work with me for one day and see if you can keep up." Thomas recalled that with the grin and chuckle that punctuate much of her conversation.

Rather than accept the challenge, the membership voted her into office.

"Work is one of the things that defines Ms. Augusta," said Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO. "She is one of the hardest-working and most dedicated trade unionists I have met in 30 years. She is an example for others."

That hard work has been recognized by a number of awards that decorate her office. Just this month, she was given the Coalition of Labor Union Women's first annual Working Women's Award. A picture frame with her photo marks her 2007 "Rosie the Riveter" Award from the Kentucky AFL-CIO. It has the words: "A woman's place is in her union."

Thomas leads the AFGE department that deals with workplace discrimination, retaliation, workers' compensation, and family and medical leave issues. Last year, the office worked on more than 340 cases out of 1,200 submitted.

With more energy than a lot of people many years younger, Thomas is often on the road, talking with local union members. She doesn't always like what she finds.

Like all bureaucracies, the union's is "slow to change," she said. "A lot of members get set in their ways and they don't want to change."

She'll visit with some locals next week "to try to get them more involved," she said. "They go to a meeting, do the minutes and the treasurer's report, and they're through."

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