From humble beginnings, Jim O’Mara rose to be one of the region’s most admired, respected labor leaders by friends and foes alike
By ED FINKELSTEIN
(PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Trying to capture the essence of a giant like Jim O’Mara is difficult, and personally painful. Jim O’Mara was a friend, often a mentor and advisor, and always willing to listen and offer his thoughts on how to solve a problem. His loss to his family is monumental; his loss to the Labor Movement is tragic. Throughout the years, Jim O’Mara shared his wisdom with our readers through his prolific ‘Letters to the Editor.’ Even in retirement, he never lost his sense of justice and was never afraid to speak out against those who would thwart that justice. The comments of labor leaders accompanying this story are testament to the respect everyone had for Jim O’Mara. To his family we offer our sincere condolences. We know Jim’s soul will Rest In Peace because no one deserves it more.)
With the death of Plumbers & Pipefitters retired Business Manager Jim O’Mara, 78, April 15 from a heart attack, the labor movement lost yet another GIANT of a man, a leader, a respected politician, a humanitarian to whom workers, businessmen, politicians and labor leaders turned for honest, candid, reasonable and practical advice.
A 60-year Local 562 member, Jim was a third generation pipefitter.
That career path was launched by his grandfather who emigrated from County Tipperary in Ireland, joined the union in 1915 and was a member for 50 years. His father, Edward, was a 42-year Local 562 member.
The tradition carries into the fourth generation — three of Jim’s four sons are pipefitters: Local 562’s Business Manager John, International Union Representative Mike (also a St. Louis County councilman) and Kevin, a working pipefitter. Son Tim is a lawyer.
IN THE BEGINNING
At 19, Jim became an apprentice pipefitter in Feb. 1955 and he and his sweetheart Pat were married that December. Their marriage was a true partnership, and it showed. A strong family man, Jim carried that trait throughout his career, working to protect the families of “his” union, Local 562.
Considered the family historian and himself a history buff, after years of research, Jim several years ago published an extensive family history, giving a unique insight into the path that helped him understand not only what hard work means, but what workers have to endure to survive and that hard work can lead to better things.
As a young boy he worked as a landscaper, an usher in a local show, a laborer loading and unloading trucks, a caddy, a bowling alley pinsetter, a grocery bagger and a jack-of-all-trades at a local filling station. These experiences would help shape his life until he retired from the union as business manager in February 2002.
AN ACCOMPLISHED CAREER
In his 60 years as a pipefitter, O’Mara’s career growth never stopped:
• With Local 562: His first job was working on the old Stix, Baer and Fuller store at the old Westroads Shopping Center (now the Galleria). Because of his experience, he was selected in 1976 to be an apprentice instructor.
Noted life-long friend Tom Callahan, “Jim was not only adept with the tools, his personality and skills were perfect to be able to help train others. So while helping others on the job as a journeyman, Local 562 snatched him away to be an instructor. They saw his talent.”
In 1977 Jim was appointed to the union’s examining board.
In 1980 he began his leadership career in Local 562 as a business representative. In 1991 he was elected to the union’s top executive position – business manager/secretary-treasurer. He was re-elected to that position until his retirement in 2002.
At that time in the union’s history, there were issues that created a less-than-positive image of the union. One of his first priorities was to resolve them and move Local 562 in a more positive direction.
Noted a Riverfront Times article in Oct. 2000 about Local 562’s ascendency as a leader in the construction trades:
“For O'Mara, politics is but one prong in an overall strategy for securing work for his members. Since he ascended to the top spot in Local 562 …the Pipefitters:
• “Earned a reputation as leaders in labor-management cooperation.
• “… were the first union locally, and one of the first nationally, to establish mandatory drug testing for employees, and they still have the strictest standards.
• “… pioneered a joint labor-management safety program that became a model in the industry.
• “… deliberately held wage increases to a fraction of what other construction workers were getting in order to decrease the gap between their wages and others.”
As an example of Jim’s forward, out-of-the-box thinking, he hired a market research firm to find out what their "customers" -- architects, engineers, general contractors and building owners -- thought about the pipefitters.
Speaking to that research project unique for a local union at the time, the Riverfront Times quoted O’Mara as saying, “We did it to find out why employers are using other trades.”
But true to his sense of fairness, that research project also included extensive discussions with Local 562 shop stewards and rank-and-file pipefitters to determine from their job-site perspective what could be done by the men and the contractors to improve productivity and the industry’s image.
From those meetings, a number of negative productivity issues came up about the contractors: lack of materials and critical equipment on the jobsite, poor scheduling between crafts which left pipefitters sitting around waiting for another craft to finish a particular part of the project before they could begin. Jim shared the findings with the contractors so that they too could be part of the solution.
Noted the article, “The union used the results as the framework for…a… labor agreement so novel that it attracted national attention:
• “It was unusually long, at 10.5 years (the first such long-term contract in the United States).
• “It contained unusually broad concessions on work rules to increase productivity.
• “It allowed contractors to use larger numbers of less skilled workers.
• “It created a cooperative method for ending jurisdictional disputes.
• “It conceives of each union member as an independent business unit who supplies his own tools and guarantees his work: If he screws up a job, he has to fix it for free on his own time.”
During his time with Local 562, he worked in support of many other unions.
Among his many “additional” duties, he was president of the St. Louis Building & Construction Trades Council, an executive board member of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council and the Missouri AFL-CIO and a member of the construction industry’s labor-management PRIDE board of directors.
• With his International Union: Because of the reputation as both a thinker and doer, Jim was tapped by his International Union, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, for service as District 4 International Vice President, member of the Pipeline Negotiating Committee, trustee of the Pipeline Health & Welfare and Pension Funds, member of the Steamfitter Committee, chairman of the International Training Fund, president of the Missouri Pipe Trades Conference and president of the Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska conference.
• With, and for, the St. Louis Community: Jim O’Mara was not only a committed unionist, he was a firm believer in giving back to his community, and he did, often:
He organized the Pipefitters “Heats On” Program to aid the elderly, the poor and Local 562 retirees; served on the executive boards of the Regional Commerce and Growth Association (now the Regional Chamber) the former St. Louis County Counts and St. Louis Ambassadors; as a member DePaul Hospital Community Advisory Board; ex-officio member of the St. Louis Art Museum Board; a past chairman of New Horizon Riding School for People with Disabilities; supporter of St. Patrick’s Center where homeless men and women are given training and a hope for a future life, and Marygrove, a residential treatment and educational center for children with emotional or behavior-disordered illnesses.
Jim is one of a few area union leaders to graduate from the Leadership St. Louis Program, a Danforth Foundation effort to help future community leaders gain a better understanding of the entire metropolitan area and the agencies that develop and implement public policy. Relationships made here last a lifetime and help graduates “get things done.”
With, and for, the state of Missouri: Appointed by four governors to key state committees: by Gov. Joe Teasdale to the State Advisory for Vocational Education; by Gov. Kit Bond to the State Board of Mediation; by Gov. Bob Holden to the Missouri Development Finance Board.
He chose to serve on those that had the most potential to positively impact working families.
• With an eye to politics: Politics has been a part of Local 562’s DNA for decades.From the days of former business managers and political powerhouses like John “Doc” Lawler and Lawrence Callanan to today, Local 562 has always been deeply involved behind the scenes in politics.
Jim O’Mara took the union’s political commitment as an important part of its responsibilities to his members. As a result, he served as a St. Louis county councilman for 11 years (1990-2001), twice serving as the council’s chairman (1993 and 1999).
He guided passage of certification requirements for mechanical work in the county that ensured only licensed, skilled tradesmen would be able to do work that could impact the safety of county residents.
The Riverfront Times called him “A very adept politician,” noting that “Local 562 had the clout to rein in corporate gorillas and the political muscle to help elect dozens of public officials…. one of St. Louis County's most influential political and labor organizations.”
In discussing the efforts to pass the mechanical licensing law, the article pointed out:
“For O'Mara, long seen as a savvy player, it was a classic move. If debate about the pipefitters-backed licensing measure seems to have an air of inevitability, it's probably thanks to Local 562's long history of successful political activism -- something that O'Mara, as business manager, helped refine.”
THE FIRST LABOR CLUB
But county politics was not his only concern.
Realizing that unions were losing the political battle to protect their members at all levels of government, Jim, along with two other Local 562 business representatives, launched a new era in local political participation with the formation of the North County Labor Legislative Club.
The idea of a local grassroots commitment to action free of traditional Democratic Party restraints and in fighting, the concept of the Labor Clubs quickly spread to other areas. Today there are 12 Labor Clubs throughout the state, most of them in the Greater St. Louis region.
A MAN OF ACCOMPLISHMENT
On his retirement in 2002, in an interview with the Labor Tribune, O’Mara said that he had accomplished the goals he established when he decided to become a Local 562 involved member. He proudly listed them as:
• “Our union is stronger today than it’s ever been;
• “We have solid, long-term contracts that will ensure our members’ work for years to come;
• “We have the best health and welfare and pension plan in the trades;
• “Our apprenticeship training program is second to none in America, one that will ensure our contractors have a steady flow of highly-qualified, skilled craftsmen who can do anything that’s thrown at them;
• “We have saved countless lives through our many charitable outreach programs, among them the ‘Heats On’ program that provides annual heating inspections and repairs for elderly citizens and the Christmas Meal Baskets for those in and out of the union who have fallen on hard times;
• “A new county licensing law that’s designed to improve public safety.
“I’ve always tried to do what’s best for our members, “O’Mara said. “Our entire team of officers and executive board members has worked towards that one major goal, and we’ve succeeded.”
The accolades, honors and awards he received over the years would themselves fill these pages. But Jim was not a man seeking honors or awards. That he and his officers were able to negotiate solid contracts that provided good wages, health care and a solid pension for his members was recognition enough for this rather quiet man.
Brother O’Mara is survived by his wonderful wife of 60 years Pat, their daughters Kathy Fischer, Karen Quinn, Debbie Sloan; and sons Tim, Michael, John and Kevin; 23 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren; his brother Denny, and his many relatives and friends.
Anyone wishing to commemorate Jim’s memory can do so with a donation to American Heart Association–St. Louis Chapter, 460 N. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63141 or Adopt a Family Local 562-Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 562, 12385 Larimore Rd. St. Louis MO 63138.
IN REMEMBRANCE OF JIM O'MARA
• Jeff Aboussie, executive secretary-treasurer, St. Louis Building Trades Council: “Mr. O’Mara was a special kind of leader. Although he didn’t have the ‘grand titles,’ and didn’t want them, people looked to him for advice and guidance. Our building trades council is the perfect example. While he wasn’t the council’s elected leader, everyone turned to him for his input. That tells you a lot about what a real leader is. And he was always available to help younger leaders. He commanded the respect of everyone, friends and foes alike.”
• Bob Kelley, president emeritus, Greater St. Louis Labor Council: “Jim was one of those bigger than life figures in the our labor movement. He was an innovator in that he believed in representing his members with tenacity and at the same time, encouraged productivity so that their contractors could compete in an ever-changing world. He changed the entire image of that union.”
• Bill King, retired Local 562 member, 50-year friend and golfing buddy: “Jim was a special man. He was a guy that would help anyone in need. Someone would come to him with a problem and Jim would say, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ Next thing you knew, the issue was resolved but Jim never took any credit, never talked about doing it. He was just a great guy. As for his golfing, while he was a good golfer, he would always say after a bad game, ‘It was the clubs!’ Then he’d go out and buy a new set! He was special to us all.”
• Jo Roche, Jim’s veteran administrative assistant at the St. Louis County Council: “Jim raised the bar for political leaders, just as he did for labor leadership. He was a different kind of leader. He saw how things would impact people, and acted accordingly.
The patriarch of his family, he was always there for them, but also for anyone who had a need. He knew he had to make changes, and that changes come hard; but he was smart enough to help people understand the need so that they could accept those changes. In so doing, he touched a lot of people’s lives.”
• Pat Dolan, president, Sprinkler Fitters Local 562, St. Louis County Councilman who served with O’Mara on the council: “We lost one of our true labor leaders, an honorable man to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. He was a family man first, but then it was his union all the way. He will really be missed.”
• Pat White, president, St. Louis Labor Council: “Jim was one of he great union leaders of our time. He is one of the men that I try to emulate. He was in the same mold of Dick Mantia (deceased building trades council leader). His actions in support of his members, in support of his community and his contractors, serves as a role model for us all. All of us in the labor movement extend our condolences to his wonderful family.”
• Jack Greenwood, Pipefitters Local 524, Scranton, PA who served as International Vice President of UA District 2 while Jim served as International Vice President for District 4: “His wisdom as an international officer was way ahead of his time, helping the UA make some tough decisions, the right decisions, when the UA was going through some difficult periods. To a lot of us, he was like the ‘chairman of the board’ because of his astute and practical business common sense.
“If he had had the youth when he came onto the UA leadership team, he could have been our General President. He had the support of a lot of locals. Why? Because he would talk straight to you, not give you lip service like a lot of people do. Jim knew what he was talking about, and others knew it too. They respected him for that.”
• Jim Brown, former Machinists District 9 Directing Business Representative and retired International Machinists vice president: “He always spoke what he thought, no deceptions. I never saw him get mad or angry with anyone, although I’m sure he did when the time was appropriate. He was a rock in the labor movement, always concerned about taking care of his fellow man.”
• Jim Callahan, retired IBEW Local 1 electrician, friends from high school: “Jim was a man you could always talk to, not matter what. When I, or anyone else, needed to get something off their chest, they could talk to Jim. He would listen, and only offer advice when you asked for it. He was always there for you.
And as a mechanic, there was no one better. That’s why the school snatched him up right away to be an instructor. They saw his talent; they needed good people to teach the skills to the kids. You never met a nicer man: in a restaurant he would be as nice to the busboy as the manager. He’s missed by everyone.”
• Frank Beller, retired Local 562 member, a 50-year friend: “First got to know Jim in 1965 working on a job in Florissant where he was the general foreman. We needed a Y lateral to connect two boilers and none was available. So that night, we got together and Jim drew up a template that we made on the job next day, welded it in place and it worked like a charm. We’ve been friends every since.
“Jim was one of those guys that was there for you no matter what. He wanted you to work hard, but he was easy to work for, and with because he knew what he was doing. If you didn’t know something, you didn’t feel funny asking his about it ‘cause he would be there to help you. He was my best friend; it’s hard to talk about how much he will be missed.”