AFL-CIO Hall of Fame
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Union Leadership
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ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. -- A champion for the rights of government employees received a lifetime achievement award for his efforts.

Tom Esparza, served as president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 15, retiring from the government in 2012.

Esparza was inducted into the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (Northwestern Illinois-Eastern Illinois chapter) Hall of Fame during a recent fall ceremony in downtown Davenport, Iowa.

"It's an honor to have been recognized, especially to have your peers make the nomination and the AFL-CIO bestows that honor on you," he said.

That nomination package and paperwork came from Karen Montague, vice president for AFGE Local 15 and a JMC employee.

"I think Tom has done more for the workers at Rock Island Arsenal than anyone

else on the history of the island," she said.

Montague recalled coming to work in the 1980s in a hostile work environment.

"When I came to work at Rock Island Arsenal in 1985, I immediately felt that I was working in a hostile environment. Every morning when I left for work, I joked with my husband that I was going back to the 'Twilight Zone.' The tension in my work area was literally nauseating," she said. "Employees were terrified of managers. There were strict rules and policies, but most were unwritten. The penalties for violating the unwritten policies varied person-to-person, at management's discretion. I saw people fired for no reason that made any sense. I saw people promoted for no reason that made any sense. I remember once a very brave employee threatened a manager with 'I am going to the union to file a complaint.' And the manager laughed at her."

According to Montague, a relatively new employee to the Rock Island Arsenal began making a name for himself as a "labor knight" for government employees.

"The rumor mill was the only way employees had to receive information about changes in the workplace. In the early nineties, a new rumor began to spread," she said. "'There's a new guy working in the union office, and he is GOOD. He'll file a complaint for you if you have a good reason to complain. He isn't scared of anybody, not even the highest level manager. He really knows what he's doing. His name is Tom Esparza.'"

Montague said Esparza soon become something of a legend.

"People lined up at the union office for a chance to talk with Tom. Tom carefully listened to all the people, advising each accordingly," she said. "Tom quickly advanced to local president. Over the next decade, I saw the workplace transform. People began to realize that they had rights. The union, in the form of Tom Esparza, would protect those rights. Tom was very successful, not only with filing complaints, but also, with negotiating policies and contracts. He maintained a good working relationship with local politicians, always reminding them of the workers' interests at the Rock Island Arsenal."

Esparza went from working as an industrial specialist to spending the majority of his time working union issues.

From its headquarters here, JMC operates a nationwide network of conventional ammunition manufacturing plants and storage depots, and provides on-site ammunition experts to U.S. combat units wherever they are stationed or deployed. JMC's customers are U.S. forces of all military services, other U.S. Government agencies, and allied nations.

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Editors Note: Below is the narrative for Esparza's nomination package.

Tom Esparza grew up in a union family where he learned the importance of organized labor. His father worked as an assembler at the Farmall plant in Rock Island and his mother worked in a window factory where, in the 1950s, she helped organize the plant. They both maintained union membership. His mother was the chair of the grievance committee and union steward.

Tom's father, a field worker in the 1930s, told Tom stories of families who worked the fields all day, often 10 or 12 hours. And sometimes, when they settled into their encampments at night, a band of whip-cracking caballeros would ride in and chase all the workers away without food or pay.

Tom began doing field working at the age of 10. He grew up in a large family and most of what he earned went to help his parents with family expenses.

In 1965, at the age of 18, Tom enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and was sent to Vietnam. After he returned from the military, he enrolled at Black Hawk College (located in Moline, Ill.) and then Western Illinois University, where he majored in education. He worked at various odd jobs while he attended college.

By the time Tom finished college, he realized that teaching would not pay as well as the ever-hiring factories that were the mainstay of the Quad City Area in the 1960s. He had a wife and two small daughters to support. He returned to work for the Farmall Plant in Rock Island and remained there for 10 years, moving up the ranks from machine operator/assembler to foreman.

The Farmall Plant closed and all the workers were displaced. Again, Tom relied on his diverse skill set to support his young family. He worked as a tool repair person, also doing some carpenter work along with roofing, and then as a building manager.

In 1982, Tom landed a job at the Arsenal as an industrial specialist. One of the first actions as a government employee was to join the union. At his new government job, Tom earned considerably less than he had been making at Farmall, but he quickly moved up the ranks and came to enjoy government work. Tom was awarded his GS-12 in January 1987.

In 1994, Tom's supervisor asked Tom's help with a little dilemma. The supervisor had noticed that Tom had good writing skills and a good understanding of regulatory guidance. The supervisor explained that one of Tom's co-workers was eligible for her career ladder promotion.

The supervisor wanted to grant the promotion. But for some reason, a higher level manager had ordered the supervisor to deny the employee's raise in pay. The supervisor asked Tom if he would write a justification for his coworker that would provide good reasons for the supervisor's decision to give her the promotion.

Tom wrote the justification. It was excellent. The supervisor was pleased with it. The employee received her promotion, but not before having to file a grievance.

A few days after the grievance was sustained, the higher level manager called Tom into his office and issued Tom a letter of reprimand. Tom was chastised for writing the justification. The higher level supervisor stated that Tom was "not a team player." He warned Tom not to meddle in management decisions ever again.

Tom turned to the union for help with this situation. The union was willing to assist him but the union steward did not know how to help Tom. Tom turned all of his attention to the union. He handled his own grievance and was able to get a reassignment. Then he became a union steward and began helping other government employees. In the mid-90s, there were many problems with labor/management relations. Tom handled the problems, one by one, learning from each new situation. He was very affective in managing complaints. He learned all the different forums a government worker has available to file a complaint.

One of the strongest tools in the government employee's toolkit is the negotiated agreement, or contract. Tom renegotiated the contract.

In 1995, by popular demand, Tom was elected President of AFGE Local 15. Tom was reelected by acclamation every election for the rest of his government career. He has successfully represented people in grievance issues, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints, Merit System Protection Board (MSPB) appeals, Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) issues, and even criminal investigations. He was considered "the best lawyer who never went to law school." He has been the distinguished guest in college classrooms, explaining the function of labor unions and the importance of participating in organized labor. He was well known within the media, writing editorials and giving interviews. As local president, he maintained a relationship with our local politicians to discuss issues involving government employment.

Now, as a temporary national representative, Tom helps negotiate contracts for many union locals, and uses his vast experience to advise and train union officials.