Bill Thurston stepping down as president of Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council

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BILL AND SUSAN THURSTON are ready for some new adventures. Bill is stepping down as president of the Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council. Susan is a recently retired parochial school teacher. “I figured it’s time,” he said. “It’s time to pass it on and get some younger people involved.” – Labor Tribune photo

Plumbers and Pipefitters 101’s Scot Luchtefeld taking the helm

By CARL GREEN
Illinois Correspondent

Belleville – When you think of the Labor Movement in St. Clair County, you about have to think of Bill Thurston.

As loud as a road grader but as sincere as a nun during Lent, Thurston has been president of the Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council as long as anyone can remember. Well, not quite that long, but it seems that way.

And now at age 66, he’s done. Stick a fork in him. He’s retired and heading to his little farm out in Washington County with his ever-patient wife Susan for adventures yet to be determined, plus a return visit to Alaska.

“I figured it’s time,” he told the Labor Tribune. “It’s time to pass it on and get some younger people involved. I’ve done everything I wanted to do, and I had fun doing it.”

Susan, a parochial schoolteacher, has also retired. She’s making plans for the garden. He has other ideas.

“I’m going to spend quite a bit of time going through all this paperwork I’ve gathered over the decades and throwing a bunch of stuff away, so I can drop what’s left on my successor and say ‘Here it is, here’s all 10 or 12 boxes of it.’ ”

That successor is Scot Luchtefeld, 57, of Waterloo, who was elected by acclamation at the Jan. 16 meeting. He works for Ameren Illinois and is a member of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 101, Belleville. Council Trustee Ronald Scott of IBEW Local 309 was elected executive vice president.

“There are some good people here, a good bunch,” Thurston said. “I think Scot will do real good. He’s ready. He’s interested, he’s energetic and he’s smart, and I think he’s got all the right stuff.”

A BIT OF PARADISE

Meanwhile, the Thurstons will be at their 54-acre place off of Illinois 153 in western Washington County, between Coulterville and Lively Grove. It’s a small piece of paradise with a three-acre pond, woods and some open land for deer. It used to have tillable acres, but Thurston planted 6,800 trees on them with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The bottomland became a wetland.

“I had every nephew I could drag out of the woodwork out planting trees,” he said. “We’ve got a tree program, we’ve got a wetland and the wildlife love it.”

It also has something the couple never had before – a nice, big house.

NEWLY ELECTED LEADERS of the Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council, President Scot Luchtefeld (right) of Plumber and Pipefitters Local 101, congratulates newly elected Vice President Ronald Scott, of IBEW Local 309. – Labor Tribune photo

“All the kids were gone. They asked, ‘Why are you building such a big house?’ It was because we’d never had one. We’ve lived in couple-of-bedroom shacks and this and that. It was something we decided we wanted to do, and we could do it and we did it.”

They’re a long way from anywhere that’s busy with modern life. “That was the whole idea,” he said. “We just wanted to be off the beaten path.”

It leaves room for their three sons, daughter and seven grandchildren to visit. They all live within a short drive away.

A UNION FAMILY

Thurston grew up in Centreville, by Cahokia in St. Clair County. His father, Francis, had two union jobs, as a construction worker and a railroad worker. That helped pay some family medical bills.   

“It was a good place to grow up,” Thurston recalled. “Nobody locked doors, and they left the keys in the car. Of course, the whole neighborhood watched you when you were a kid. If you did something wrong, mom and dad knew about it before you even got done with it.”

He had no interest in college but began working construction with Laborers Local 100, of East St. Louis, on a permit and then received his card in 1970.

He spent three years as a Centreville police officer at a time when his brother was in Vietnam.

“I think I was getting shot at more on the streets of Centreville than he was in Vietnam,” he said. “Being a cop down there was quite an experience, and I decided not to stay there.”

He went back to construction work and in 1976 was asked to serve as a delegate to the Greater East St. Louis Labor Council, becoming sergeant-at-arms. Soon enough, the national AFL-CIO demanded that the group merge with its neighbor to the north in Belleville, which resulted in today’s Labor Council.

“It was very difficult,” Thurston recalled. “We had some real personalities involved there. We had to face the facts – Belleville didn’t want us, and we didn’t want Belleville.

“But the national came in and said, ‘Either you do it or we’ll do it.’ We figured, ‘Well, it’s time to do something.’ That’s how it ended up being such a big executive board, like we still are today. We took a mixture of everybody from two E-boards to make it work.”

Jack Coyne of Service Employees Union Local 116, Belleville, was the first president of the combined group. Thurston was elected president later, in the ‘90s, and never stopped until now.

“It’s been a fun ride. It ended up coming together and being a good mix,” he said.

ON THE JOB

He had already learned stern lessons about the workplace from the veteran laborers in Local 100.

“I learned early on to pay attention – to listen a lot before you ever open your mouth,” he said. “I came up under the old guys. It took a lot of learning and it wasn’t easy, but they made you learn it.

“The guys I came up under would only tell you something once.  Next time, they showed you –maybe hit you with a board or something to get your attention. They were good guys and they were honest.

“A lot of these guys were veterans, and they were big on respect. That’s what it took. What finally happened for me was they got to

the point where they trusted me, and from there they would help you along.”

In 2002, Thurston had to retire from working with the Laborers, going on disability after a knee replacement and installation of an artificial heart valve.

“I enjoyed working construction,” he said. “It’s like everything else – you have good days and bad days, but the good always outnumbers the bad. It’s always about helping people. If you’re on a job, you have responsibilities –to make sure you take care of the work and take care of your people and make sure the job gets done.”

ON THE TOWN

As president of the Labor Council, Thurston moved into a long series of community roles representing Labor – such things as the United Way board, Project READ at Belleville Area College, Programs and Services for Older People (PSOP) at Southwestern Illinois College, the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois labor-management committee and many more. He said he always tried to make a positive contribution.

“I’m not one of these people who wants to sit on a board just to have a title,” he said. “You’re representing your trade and representing the Labor Council so if you’re here, do something that’s going to be good and a benefit for everyone.”

Joe Eble, longtime executive recording secretary for the Labor Council, said Thurston was able to take information and contacts from one group and use them to help another group. “There was so much he knew about Labor in the area,” Eble said. “He’s really going to be missed. It’s going to be the younger people who will keep the ball rolling. I think some of the people we’re bringing in will be good,”

One community project Thurston plans to continue is serving on the board of the Belleville Labor and Industry Museum, which he has helped develop into an unusually thorough and well-designed community museum that has become an important resource for school groups and youth groups, such as the 100 Girl Scouts who toured it recently.

“I haven’t had the time to give to it that I should,” he said. “I like it. I enjoy Labor history and stuff, and there’s always something you find out new. I don’t know how many times I’ve been through that building, but it seems like every time, I see something I didn’t see before.”

Community work hasn’t always been easy. Working with union members is one thing. A board with all kinds of people is something else.

“When I started getting on a couple of different boards, and you’re meeting other people, a lot of them don’t even know how to spell the word ‘labor.’ They don’t know anything about unions and they have an attitude,” he said.

“I always felt it was my job to smooth these people a little bit and work with them – to let them know we’re not bad guys and gals, that we actually do good things.”

OLD-TIME UNION GUY

Bringing attention to Labor’s contributions that way is just part of the job, Thurston said.

“There have been a lot of things that Organized Labor has done for every city around that people never know,” he said. “They just do it, get done with it and that’s it. They don’t need any accolades or any of that stuff. It needed to be done, so we did it.”

He had to learn to deal with people uncomfortable with an old-time union guy.

“A few people actually got nervous, because they didn’t know about me. Same way with me and them – I didn’t know anything about them. Everybody’s got a different thing in life. I always felt if you’re sitting on this board and you’re here to do what you should be doing on the board, it’s a good start to being OK. But if I figure that you’re full of crap, I’m going to act like you’re not even there.

“It’s worked out,” he added. “I’ve worked with a lot of good people, made a lot of good friends.”

It fits with his philosophy that living right is all about helping others.

“If you’re OK, you’re getting by, and your family’s OK, then you’re supposed to help other people. Everybody needs a little help now and then.”

TALKIN’ POLITICS

Part of being a Labor leader in the Metro-East means dealing with politics, from city officials to legislators and state officers. Thurston knows they can foul up but thinks they also get a bum rap at times.

“Not every politician is a jerk,” he said. “A lot of politicians really work hard, do a lot of good things and never get credit for it. But don’t let them stub their toe one time, or that will bring the whole world down on them.”

He would like to see the Democratic Party get back to its old role of building a coalition among many factions – something it has lost over the past 20 years of intense politics.

“There’s no loyalty now,” he said. “That’s how we get our asses kicked in elections – too many factions going different directions. It’s like pulling boards out of a house. You pull so many out, it’s going to fall down.”

He’s been a Democrat since he was a kid, passing out literature with his pal Joe Touchette on behalf of Joe’s uncle Francis and father Elmer.

“I’ve always believed in the philosophy. You always come back to helping your neighbor, helping people. And I just don’t think the other side of the aisle has that same outlook. They want it all for them. It’s not fair and it’s not right.”

Like most of the Labor Movement, Thurston is no fan of Governor Bruce Rauner, so he has been keenly interested in the Democratic primary campaign, currently led by billionaire J.B. Pritzker.

“I’ve met him twice. I don’t know him real deep,” Thurston said. “You only know what you hear. He talks a good talk. His TV ads look sincere. Just don’t tell me the sun is shining when it’s raining like cats and dogs outside.

“I think right now he’s probably the best qualified to make that run. I think, given a chance, he’ll do some good stuff.”

Among the many roles he’s leaving is head of the 12th Congressional District COPE, to be replaced by Glyn Ramage, business manager of the Southwestern Illinois Laborers’ District Council.

LABOR’S FUTURE

Thurston sees the Metro-East community as strong and cooperative – up to a point.

“The main thing is we don’t have the work,” he said. “We don’t have the factories we used to have. When you have factories and plants, maintenance work comes through, and outside construction, too. I think we still work together pretty good, but with the political atmosphere, you don’t know from one day to the next what the hell’s going to happen.

“The stores and the factories close down in one day. People show up to work and the gates are locked up. That’s one thing I’m not real happy with business about. I just feel everybody has a place in this world, and if they‘re doing their job and they’re making you money, why close the plant down? Why lock the gates?”

Management needs to look to its own compensation before penalizing workers, he said.

“Everybody’s entitled to make a decent wage, to raise their family and have insurance and pension,” he said. “Who draws the line in the sand saying that they’re not deserving of this? If they come to work every day and they build your product, then do your job, come on, it’s only fair play. You’re making money, so let everybody make a little. You don’t need the whole thing. You can share a little bit of it. But that’s probably not a CEO’s mindset.”

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