A version of this profile appeared in the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO News and Views Winter 2018.
On December 7, 2017 Jack Shea left the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council (ACLC) office at 3:42 pm to make the 20-minute drive to IBEW Local 5 in Southside, Pittsburgh. His executive board meeting begins at 5:30 pm. “We joke that he goes and sets up the chairs”, said Barbara Wilson, who has been Jack’s secretary at the ACLC since he became president in 1998. “I like to be early. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been like this”, admits Jack.
After 50 years in the Labor movement and the last two decades as the president of the ACLC, Jack Shea is more than a labor leader, he is a union organizer. In the early 1970s, Jack was on the organizing committee for the plant where he worked. A few years before, there had been an unsuccessful campaign to organize, but in 1974 the workers at Bacharach Instruments voted to join the IUE. Going through the organizing fight for himself, gave Jack a truly unique outlook on connecting with working people and turned him into a union organizer.
In an organizing campaign working people put a lot on the line; it’s not just their job, it’s their livelihood, the means through which they provide for their family. Jack Shea’s understanding of both sides of the organizing experience, on the shop floor and as the organizer, effected his perspective for the rest of his labor career and made him a valuable resource for other labor leaders.
Of the IUE Business Agents who organized his plant at Bacharach, Jack met his mentor, Marge Wonderling. “She took care of us, like we were her kids. I can’t say enough about that lady and what she taught me”. After the plant organized, Jack became a night shift steward, then local president, and eventually, Marge sponsored him to become a representative of the IUE. Jack took to organizing up and down the Eastern seaboard from Pennsylvania to Florida.
After nearly two and a half decades with the IUE, Jack became president of the ACLC in 1998. Over the last few decades, President Shea grew attendance and participation at council meetings, developed community partnerships that benefited working families across southwestern Pennsylvania, and has maintained the largest Labor Day Parade in the country. “I’m as passionate now, as I was back in ‘98 and ‘74.”
To this day, Jack’s organizing experience has remained a resource for ACLC affiliates. “It’s never going to be easy. It’s gonna take forever, and it’s a continuous job. You win some. You lose some. And that’s how it is . . . but you make people’s lives better, whether you win or not.”
If you ask Jack about advice he has for young union members, his passion for the labor movement and its significance in his own life is apparent. “The union is a living thing. I don’t care what your profession is, you’re doing better if you’re in a union. . . get more involved in your union. You will get out of it, what you put in.”
Darrin Kelly of the International Association of Fire Fighters will take on the role of president of the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council. “You can never replace Jack Shea. But like Jack says, you should always be your own person. He is leaving behind the best playbook in the Labor movement and I cannot thank him enough.” As his first order of business as president of the Labor Council, Darrin made a motion to bestow on Jack Shea the title of president emeritus. The motion carried.