‘Peace maker’ Dick Mantia left his mark on the St. Louis construction industry

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DICK MANTIA 1932-2014
DICK MANTIA 1932-2014

By ED FINKELSTEIN

Publisher

As a kid, Dick Mantia was tough enough to use his fists if he needed to solve problems, but he never did; as an adult he was smart enough to solve problems with his brain, which he always did.

With his perpetual wide grin that lit up a room, a list of honors that would choke a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and a solid sense of right and wrong, Dick Mantia rose from humble beginnings in St. Louis to become one of the most recognized and trusted men in the building trades in St. Louis and across America.

On June 9, his family, joined by hundreds of friends in labor and management gather at the Cathedral Basilica in Saint Louis to say “Goodbye and thank you, Dick” for a life serving union members and families. Throughout his 53-year career, he served the members of Insulators and Allied Trades Local 1 as an executive board member, business representative and business manager; the St. Louis Building Trades Council as its secretary-treasurer for 20 years; and his International Union – International Association of Heat & Frost Insulators and Allied Trades Workers — as International Organizer and then International Representative for the 15 years.

Dick, 82, officially retired September 1, 2007. He died of leukemia while in Missouri Baptist Hospital on June 4, 2014 as his family was preparing to bring him home for hospice care.

‘PEACE MAKER’

As a young man Dick was a “no nonsense” kid, if he had to be, and became a Golden Gloves champion twice: a sub-novice championship in 1947 at the age of 14 (100 pound division) and a light heavyweight champ in 1954 after returning from a two-year stint in the Navy.

But “toughness” and “roughness” are not the same. During these formative years, Dick’s nickname was “Dickie the Dove.” “He would rather settle issues with reason than with fists,” Toni Mantia, his wonderful wife of 62 years, said with pride.

“If there was going to be a problem, you always wanted Dickie on your side,” she added, “But Dick never started trouble; he was always the peace maker, even though he was indeed tough enough to resolve any issue.”

Being the “peace maker” stood him well all his life.

That’s undoubtedly why he moved up the union’s leadership ladder quickly and why in 1972, just as he was taking over the Building Trades Council’s executive secretary-treasurer from retiring Joe Cousins, Dick was tapped to become labor co-chairman of PRIDE, St. Louis’ fledgling construction industry labor-management group (Productivity and Responsibility Increase Development and Employment) committed to making St. Louis the best union construction town in America. It was the first group of its kind and is still operating full tilt today.

OPEN COMMUNICATIONS

DICK MANTIA co-chairing PRIDE with contractor Al Fleischer (sitting, also deceased). – Labor Tribune file photo
DICK MANTIA co-chairing PRIDE with contractor Al Fleischer (sitting, also deceased).

It was this dual role that propelled Dick onto the national labor scene. Working with his management co-partner, the now deceased Al Fleischer (chairman, Fleischer-Seeger Construction Co.), the two worked tirelessly to resolve local construction issues through open communications.

Their successes became legendary: strikes were avoided, hundreds of unproductive work rules eliminated, cost overruns disappeared and jurisdictional disputes all but evaporated.

For the first time, architects, engineers, suppliers and owners working with the building trades and the union construction firms and local organizations through PRIDE were able to reach a level of cooperation never before heard of in St. Louis, once known for being a “tough” labor town that major companies avoided if they were looking for new expansion sites.

The concept was so novel then, that in 1973 U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT featured PRIDE in a special article, extensively quoted Dick about the changes being made in St. Louis construction.

With PRIDE well established by 1981, none other than FORTUNE Magazine did a seven-page spread on PRIDE’s accomplishments.

MASSIVE UNEMPLOYMENT

Before PRIDE, there was 35 percent unemployment in the construction trades.

Once PRIDE was launched and took hold, union construction boomed, building trades unemployment dropped to about six percent.

St. Louis turned from being one of the most expensive construction towns in America to one, if not the, most productive.

That point was driven home when the U.S. Labor Department in 1982 recognized PRIDE as the finest example of labor-management cooperation in America and cited Dick and Al’s leadership as one of the prime reasons.

So dramatic was the St. Louis turnaround that Forbes Magazine did a major feature article on the organization and its leaders.

Dick served the PRIDE organization until 1998.

HARBINGER OF THE FUTURE

The “Dickie the Dove’s” moniker as a kid was obviously a harbinger of a career focused on making things work harmoniously through open and honest communications.

As a mark of that kind of leadership, in every one of his elected offices, Dick was unopposed for re-election, a mark of his leadership acceptance by his fellow tradesmen.

The son of a traveling pipefitter, Dick was recommended, and accepted, as a permit worker in 1947 into the Insulators Union. Immediately after fulfilling a two-year stint with the Navy during the Korean War (1953-1954), Dick became a full-fledged Local 1 apprentice and in 1958, a journeyman. He never looked back.

“I’ve traveled all over these United States, and people still can’t believe what we’ve done here,” he would say upon his return from speaking engagements he was invited to in cities across America.

“PRIDE, and the willingness of union leadership and members to change with the times, has kept St. Louis the best, most productive, union construction town in America. That’s something we should all be proud of…but not so proud that we don’t continue to move forward and continue to make the changes necessary to keep our union contractors competitive.”

ALWAYS LOOKING AHEAD

In preparing for his retirement in 2007, instead of looking back on his career, Dick looked to the future.

“We were able to grow here because we took the time to educate our members, help them understand why changes were needed. That kind of smarts has to continue into the future. New materials, new ways of doing things, tighter money for building means we need to find ways to keep our productivity up,” he always stressed.

“I see some want to turn the clock back a bit, not continue to change. If we do that, we’re dead in the water,” he would say.

To try and ensure that St. Louis continues to grow, Dick Mantia rejoined the PRIDE board of directors and continued to serve as president of the St. Louis Port Council.

“I’m never going to really ‘retire’ and walk away from the industry, the people I love,” he said. “I don’t want to see our building trades not continue to be innovative and constantly changing with the times. Anything I can do to help that happen, I’m willing to do.”

And he did. Even in retirement, he attended monthly meetings of the Building Trades Council meeting. The week before his death, he was at the monthly Port Council meeting reporting on the defeat of right-to-work, again. He was instrumental in its defeat in 1978 as part of a successful unified labor effort to protect working families

And that’s the “can do, will do” attitude that Dick held throughout his professional career, an attitude that won his accolades from his peers, from contractors and from other organizations.

WORKED BEHIND THE SCENES

In fact, few people know that the University of Missouri St. Louis honored Dick Mantia with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for his work in the construction industry and his knowledge of labor law.

Most people didn’t know that, because Dick never sought publicity. He worked behind the scenes to get the job done. That’s how it always was with him.

While receiving honors over the years, something he never sought, in 1978 he and Fleischer received an honor, which Toni says made him the most proud – the nationally respected Engineering News-Record’s Construction Man of the Year award.

They were among only 40 persons in the nation to be singled out as one of “Those who served the best interest of the construction industry.” Dick was one of only three labor union leaders recognized that year.

Among others honored with Dick and Al were the designer of special gates to protect London, England, from floods, the chairman of the Business Roundtable, the inventor of a prefabrication system for reinforcing steel for concrete building beams to carry loads without shoring and the designer of a $1 billion port for the Navy’s Trident submarines.

“If there was ever a man who deserved the recognition, it was Dick Mantia,” said his friend and union brother, Jerry Feldhaus, himself a former Insulators Local 1 business manager and secretary-treasurer of the Building Trades Council.

“Dick advanced the cause of the St. Louis Building Trades more than many will ever realize,” Feldhaus said.

COMMUNITY COMMITMENT

In a Labor Tribune story on Sept. 17, 1992 announcing Dick’s retirement from the Building Trades Council to accept an invitation to serve his International Union, former Cement Masons Business Manager George Erslon noted that Dick took “his job way beyond the actual job description, involving himself in a wide variety of committees and organizations which ultimately impact the ability of union tradesmen to have jobs.”

That “beyond and above” commitment included Vice-Chairman of the United Fund Labor Committee; Chairman of the Greater St. Louis Labor and Management Committee of the City of Hope; and Honorary Chairman, Missouri Special Olympics, Executive Committee.

He served as an active member of the board of directors for St. Louis’ key civic groups: the United Way, City of Hope Labor Committee, the State Economic Advisory Committee, the Committee to Save Lambert Airport, the Committee for Missouri Transportation Development Council, the Boys’ Club of St. Louis, St. Louis Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise Council, City of St. Louis, the St. Louis County Economic Council, the Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater St. Louis, St. Louis Metropolitan Airport Authority, and Citizens for Modern Transit, which passed the sales tax to give us MetroLink.

Additionally, Dick served on the executive boards of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, the Missouri AFL-CIO, St. Louis Regional Convention & Sports Complex Authority, the Association for the Improvement of the Mississippi River and St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association.

He was appointed by various political authorities to serve on numerous boards, including St. Louis County’s Business and Industrial Development Commission and the County Road Development Advisory Committee, the Missouri State Board of Mediation.

Given these accomplishments, when he went to work with his International Union, he could have “coasted” and no one would have complained.

But not Dick.

He became lead organizer for the Insulators and Allied Trades International Union in the National Building Trades Organization Program in Las Vegas where nine unions, in a unique show of unity, worked together to organize thousands of non-union construction workers. “That approach should be duplicated across America,” Dick would say. “It proves that cooperation among trades works.”

Sit on his laurels? No way. At any given time, Dick could be found organizing or on special assignment in Louisville, New Orleans, Sacramento, Des Moines or Pascagoula, Mississippi and Homa, Louisiana where a “union organizer” was not always welcome.

And if that wasn’t enough, International Union President Jim Grogan had him spending 18 months serving as the business manager for a local union that had been placed in trusteeship even while on other special assignments!

Retire! No way, said Dick.

TODAY’S CHALLENGES

When he finally did slow down a bit in 2009, after officially “retiring” from the International Union, Dick continued to speak out promoting change to ensure the survival of unionized construction.

“The number one issue we face today is the trades respecting one another’s jurisdiction. If we are not careful, we’ll destroy our unionized construction industry from within.

“Our membership has to realize that there are non-union workers out there ready and willing to take our work…and they can. We beat them because we can be more productive and provide a higher quality of work for the owners than anyone else. That’s the message we need to continue to take to our memberships, our new leadership,” Dick would say constantly.

“But our leadership has to be willing to be candid with their members. They have to know that we’re losing market share, and that changes are vital to our keeping, and expanding, that market share. Our members are smart. If you’re honest with them, tell ’em the facts, I’m confident they will respond with whatever we have to do to keep our union contractors competitive.”

‘SECRET WEAPON’

MANTIA CELEBRATING the victory over right-to-work in 1978. Pictured (front row, from left) are Teamsters Ed Dorsey (deceased), Mantia, St. Louis Labor Council President Bob Kelley and Missouri AFL-CIO President Jim Meyers (deceased). – Labor Tribune file photo
MANTIA CELEBRATING the victory over right-to-work in 1978. Pictured (front row, from left) are Teamsters Ed Dorsey (deceased), Mantia, St. Louis Labor Council President Bob Kelley and Missouri AFL-CIO President Jim Meyers (deceased).
– Labor Tribune file photo

Through it all, the thing that kept Dick going was his “secret weapon” — Toni, his loving Italian bride whose smile matches Dick’s and whose warmth knows no limits for friends and family.

Toni brought a unique perspective to Dick’s work. Over the years, she was an accountant for several of the area’s largest construction firms. Without telling tales out of school, they would talk a lot about each other’s work, Toni giving Dick an insider’s view of the construction industry, helping him understand “the other side of the story.”

On one occasion, back in 1978 during the infamous “right-to-work (for less)” campaign in Missouri, Toni’s employer (a 100 percent union company) unknowingly responded to a friend’s request to make a donation to the anti-union group sponsoring the legislation. When Toni saw the check, she marched into the boss’s office, told him to sign the check himself, she quit! Shocked, the boss demanded to know why and Toni gave him an instant education on that phony, anti-labor law. The check was never signed, Toni continued to work there…and ultimately the law was resoundingly defeated.

DICK DIDN’T STAND A CHANCE

Toni tells the story of their meeting, that special ‘smile’ in her voice:

“I was 14. I was with my friend on a Thursday riding a bus on Grand Avenue. On walks Dick and two of his friends. He looked at me and said ‘Hello.’”

“Who is that?” Toni asked her friend. “That’s Dickie Mantia. Do you want to meet him?”

“No I’ll meet him,” was Toni’s reply, adding “That’s the guy I’m going to marry!”

The following Saturday at a “Y” Teen Town, Dick asked Toni for a date…and three years later they were indeed married.

BELOVED FAMILY MAN

After that fateful bus ride set them on the road that led to their marriage, Dick and Toni became proud parents, with a son Rocky, a 31-year member of Insulators Local 1 and daughter, Michelle Scarfino.

And even prouder grandparents of seven grandchildren.

Rocky and JeanAnn Mantia’s children include: Chris, a paramedic fire fighter in Webster Groves; Tony, a journeyman with Insulators Local 1 and currently a supervisor at Labadie powerhouse remodeling; and Marissa, attending Lindenwood University;

Michelle and Terry Scarfino’s children include: Anthony, Marietta (Mae) and twins Richard and Michael, who recently graduated CBC.

Dick’s sister, Joyce Manning is married to retired insulator Dominic Manning. They have a son, Mark, and a daughter, Karen Zoellner.

Dick’s brother, Bart Mantia, a prominent and respected St. Louis attorney, died some 32 years ago.

“When Dick walked into the room, the whole family lights up. He was always the center of everyone’s love and attention,” Toni said proudly.

IN THE COMPANY OF GIANTS

CELEBRATING THE LIFE of Dick Mantia at a June 9, 2014 mass at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis. – Labor Tribune photo
CELEBRATING THE LIFE of Dick Mantia at a June 9, 2014 mass at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis.
– Labor Tribune photo

St. Louis is a labor town of substantial note in national labor circles, not only for PRIDE, but for the first long-term contracts in the nation, no strike pledges for construction projects and five St. Louis tradesmen went on the become presidents of their International Unions, something few cities can boast.

We now add a sixth great trade unionist to that distinguished list of notable St. Louis labor leaders who have made their mark on both the local and national scene – Dick Mantia.

To Toni and the entire Mantia family, the Labor Tribune joins with the Labor Movement to offer its most sincere condolences and sympathies.

You lost a husband, father, grandfather and brother.

The Labor Movement lost one of its greatest leaders.

We are grieving with you.

May his soul rest in peace.

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Remembrances of a great but humble man

 

James Grogan Jr.,president, International Association of Heat & Frost Insulators & Allied Trades:

“Dick Mantia is everything that is good about Labor. Whatever was asked of him, he took the ball and got the job done. He helped to launch the PRIDE organization and it became a national model for labor and management cooperation. Dick’s legacy has set a high water mark in the building trades across America for decades into the future.”

 

Jerry Feldhaus, former executive secretary-treasurer, Building Trades Council:

“The whole union construction industry is indebted to him. It was Dick’s effort with PRIDE that kept St. Louis from becoming a non-union town. Dick is to the building trades what Stan Musial is to our Cardinals. It will not be the same world without him.”

 

Len Toenjes, president, AGC St. Louis:

“He demonstrated what could really happen when there is trust and a desire to find solutions to issues between labor and management. No one worked harder to build that sense of trust; he would always follow through on his commitments.”

 

Jeff Aboussie, executive secretary-treasurer, Building Trades Council:

“Dick left a mark on our labor-management community that has made the way we do business in the St. Louis construction industry second to none in America. He taught us that the way your work out your differences is to sit down and talk, negotiate, compromise your way to a workable solution.”

 

Gina Walsh, president, Missouri State Building Trades Council, Missouri State Senator and proud Insulators and Allied Trades Local 1 member:

“Dick was one of those unique pioneers for the working man. I learned a lot from him. When we walked neighborhoods in the right-to-work fight, he taught me what the Union was all about. He’s my real hero.”

 

Bob Soutier, president, Greater St. Louis Labor Council:

“He was unbelievable. He was able to bring people together like no one I’ve every known. He was admired more than anyone in the Labor Movement. We lost a true labor leader. We lost a great ambassador for organized labor.”

David Cook, president, United Food & Commercial Workers Local 655:

“With all due respect to the really outstanding labor leaders we have, and have had, in this town, Dick Mantia was the best. He had a vision of the future before the future happened. He was on a level by himself as a labor leader.”

 

Rich Petsoff, long-time golfing friend, Teamsters Local 133 beer driver (retired):

“He will be missed from the 1st through the 19th hole! He was always upbeat, a true gentlemen on and off the golf course. He never had a bad word to say about anyone. The golf gods will welcome a man of his character.”

 

Jim O’Mara, business manager, Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 562 (retired):

“Dick was a great leader for the building trades. He was strong, yet personable. That was a winning combination that helped with the incredible successes he had in keeping St. Louis a strong union construction town. He will be missed.”

 

Bob Kelley, president emeritus, Greater St. Louis Labor Council (retired):

“I’m heartbroken that he’s gone. Having worked with Dick over many years to help in solving community issues and differences between unions, I was always amazed at how in control of himself he was. No matter what the situation or how difficult, he never got angry or lost control. He concentrated on getting the job done. The Labor Movement lost a great advocate for working men and women.”

 

Jim Callahan, 54-year friend, member, IBEW Local 1 (retired):

“Dick is the best example of what Labor is all about. No one can think of him without thinking of PRIDE. When he came into the field to talk with guys on the job, many were worried that he was just getting into bed with the contractors. ‘Give it time,’ he would tell us. He was absolutely right. When what he was preaching really sunk in, it changed the entire outlook of labor here.” [/box]

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Honors for service

1974

The City of Hope “Spirit of Life” Award

Khoury League Meritorious Service Award

UNICO - Third Annual Gourmet Awards

 

1975

• Missouri Young Americans “Torch of Freedom Award” for outstanding service in the field of labor relations

1976

• Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from Missouri University, St. Louis

1977

Construction News & Review St. Louis Construction Industry Man of the Year

• St. Louis Firefighters 73 Labor Man of the Year for achievements on behalf of Public Employees

1978

Engineering News-Record Construction Man of the Year. Cited as one of only 40 persons in the nation to be singled out by a leading construction magazine and 1 of 3 members of organized labor to be mentioned by name as one of “Those who served the best interest of the construction industry”

1979

• Cited by AFL-CIO President George Meany for his contribution to the defeat of the so-called, anti-union “right-to-work (for less)” campaign in Missouri in 1978

1980

• Awards from the Producers Council and the Business & Industrial Development Commission

1981

• St. Louis Area Port Council Maritime Man of the Year

 1982

• Recognized by Raymond J. Donovan, Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, for leadership and contributions to the construction industry

1985

• U.S. Dept. of Labor OSHA award

1986

• State of Missouri, Community Service Award and St. Louis Ambassadors Spirit of St. Louis Award

1991

• Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service’s Directors Award

1992

• Honored by the PRIDE Organization

1993

• Hits his first “Hole in One” (and still talks about it even after hitting a second one!)

2004

• Inducted into the St. Louis Gateway Classic Sports Foundation Boxing Hall of Fame

2005

• St. Louis Area Port Council’s Quarter Century Labor Man of the Year

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