Longtime local union activist Joan Suarez honored at new Texas Labor Plaza

By LINDA JARRETT
Correspondent

JOAN SUAREZ, a longtime St. Louis union activist, was recently honored with an engraved quote at a new San Antonio Labor Plaza in Texas. In 1972, Suarez led a 22-month strike of 600 workers against the Farah Manufacturing Co. in San Antonio. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg thanks Suarez for attending the Sept. 5 dedication ceremony.
– Shannon Duffy/United Media Guild photo

Longtime activist Joan Suarez has amassed many awards in her decades of union work, and she recently received another – an engraved quote at the new San Antonio Labor Plaza in Texas.

Suarez, who recently retired as a leader with Missouri Jobs with Justice and as executive director of Bread and Roses Missouri, was one of six Labor leaders honored at Labor Day dedication ceremony at the new plaza. It’s only the second use of public land in the United States to memorialize the Labor Movement.

The public art tribute is located in the River Walk Public Art Garden on Market Street in a space that was originally home to a sculpture of Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor. The statue fell into disrepair and eventually was taken down.

The plaza highlights the contributions of the Labor Movement and Labor leaders in San Antonio and the United States. Suarez led a 22-month strike of 600 workers against the Farah Manufacturing Company in San Antonio in 1972.

ENGRAVED QUOTE: Joan Suarez’s quote engraved in the sidewalk reflects the time she led a 22-month strike of 600 workers against the Farah Manufacturing Co. in San Antonio. – Shannon Duffy/United Media Guild photo

“The Labor Committee and the mayor of San Antonio asked us for a quote, which they would have inscribed in the concrete sidewalk surrounding the spot where the Gompers statue stands,” Suarez said. “My quote was about the Farah Manufacturing Company strike.”

It reads: “I can still see 600 Farah Manufacturing Company workers walking off their jobs in May 1972 in support of five mechanics who had been fired for speaking up for their rights. It would be a long 22 months, but they hung on and they won!”

INTRODUCTION TO THE LABOR MOVEMENT
As a student at the University of Minnesota, Suarez had no idea what to do after she graduated with a major in Political Science and a minor in History.

She described her parents as “Humphrey Democrats” and said, “They weren’t activists, but they had the values, and I grew up with that.”

After attending a meeting of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, the director of education approached her and asked her if she would be interested in being his graduate assistant at the university.

“I applied the next day,” she said. “I ended up as a graduate student in Industrial Relations and worked as a graduate assistant for two years.”

This position started Suarez’ interesting and active life in the union world.

From there, she went to work at the University of West Virginia in its Labor program. She worked there for two years with the West Virginia AFL-CIO.

“I decided I wanted to work for a union,” she said. “I didn’t want to be in Washington or New York; I wanted to be in the field.”

EDUCATION AND ORGANIZING
In 1962, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) hired her as education director and sent her to St. Louis.

“I met my husband, Joe, who was active in the International Union of Electrical Workers while working for Emerson Electric,” Joan said. “My union offered him a job and sent us to Texas.”

In Texas, Suarez helped to organize workers involved in the 1972 Farah Manufacturing Company strike.

“We organized the workers who walked off their jobs for supporting five fellow workers who got fired for going to a union rally in El Paso when they had been scheduled to work,” she said.

Suarez went on to become the first woman president of the San Antonio Central Labor Council.

BACK TO ST. LOUIS
She returned to St. Louis in 1987 as regional director of the Southwest ACWA and was elected vice president of the international union.

The ACWA then merged with the textile workers and became ACTWU.

“Then we merged with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and became UNITE,” she said.

UNITE later merged with the hotel and restaurant employees and became UNITE HERE, but Joan retired in 2003 while it was still UNITE.

SAN ANTONIO LABOR PLAZA: The new plaza highlights the contributions of the Labor Movement and Labor leaders in San Antonio and the U.S. It is only the second use of public land in the United States to memorialize the Labor Movement.
– Shannon Duffy/United Media Guild photo

MISSOURI JOBS WITH JUSTICE
After retiring from UNITE, Suarez became active in Missouri Jobs with Justice (JwJ) as a volunteer.

She formed the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates and was board chair for several years. She retired from that position in 2010.

JwJ eventually sent Suarez to the Regional Arts Commission, where she trained in the Community Arts Program.

“We had the money for a youth program,” she said. “They wanted us to work up a mock program, and I said if we’re going to work six months on a program, it will be real, not a mock program.”

Her next-door neighbor was an assistant principal at Riverview High School and allowed her access to the high school drama class. That led to the program being in grade schools and city recreational centers.

BREAD & ROSES MISSOURI
“The promise was that when it was financially able, we would spin it off into its own organization, and the first five years, I did it pro bono,” she said. “We spun it off into Bread and Roses Missouri, and I became director of the organization.”

She stepped down from Bread and Roses in 2020.

“Now, I’m looking for my next career,” Suarez said, laughing. “I’ll be 85 in February, and I recognize that I’ve had, in some ways, a very privileged life, but there’s nothing I would do differently.

“You can’t do social and economic justice for 44 years as I have and then sit down. If you’re really committed to what you’ve been doing, it’s in your soul, in your whole being.”


 

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