News Column

Rights Fighter

April 6, 2011

Rebecca Villaneda, Staff Writer

Hank Lacayo has spent his life following the call to civic duty, campaigning for worker's rights and furthering the development of U.S. Hispanic leadership.

It's hard to find a blank spot on the walls of Mr. Lacayo's office in Newbury Park, Calif. Black-and-white photos of himself with such well-known people as President Gerald Ford, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and Cesar Chavez vie for space with plaques, certificates and testimonials from mayors, governors and presidents.

A photo of Mr. Lacayo at President Carter's inaugural dinner is inscribed, "To Hank, your help on my campaign made this day possible."

"I was the only labor guy invited to that," Mr. Lacayo, 80, says with pride. "I had a very important position with the United Auto Workers (UAW) that gave me entry into many areas. I never forgot where I came from."

Labor Leader

In 1953, North American Aviation in Inglewood, Calif., was in the midst of a strike over worker's wages. A longtime union man suggested that Mr. Lacayo represent worker's rights in a leadership role. He was a fairly new member of the UAW's Local 887 and just back from serving in the U.S. Air Force.

Mr. Lacayo, in his early 20s, was put in charge of Gate 34. His instructions: Stop trains. With a team of men holding picket signs, Mr. Lacayo ordered an oncoming train to stop. When it didn't, he lay on the tracks.

"I became a famous kid," Mr. Lacayo laughs. "I got promoted from the gate to the union hall. I was disciplined, I followed orders. I was always available."

He kept moving up the ranks, including stints at organizing for the union, for which he said, "I was very successful at doing that chore."

In the mid-1950s he agreed to represent a group of 450 African-American janitors because no one else would. These were men with degrees holding mops, the only UAW job they were allowed at the time. When he ran for a next-tier position, every one of those janitors came to vote for him. It was his first lesson in bridge building.

Mr. Lacayo learned well under his mentor, the storied Walter Reuther, who made the UAW a major force for workers' rights. Reuther's philosophy was that the bread box and the ballot box were closely linked, Mr. Lacayo says. "That means the bread box is your salary, what feeds you. The ballot box can take that away by an act of Congress. To protect that, you must know the politicians -- you must help people get elected who are going to be sympathetic to you."

Among those sympathetic to him over the years are Ralph Nader, President Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and California Gov. Jerry Brown.

The Padrino

U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, the first Hispanic woman to serve as a cabinet member, met Mr. Lacayo in 1984 when she was running for the Rio Hondo (Calif.) Community College board. Solis, just 27 at the time, was taking on an incumbent during a period when Hispanic representation was hard to come by.

"He just continued on from there to support me when I ran for the state Assembly, when I ran for Senate and the House of Representatives," Ms. Solis says. "When I took on a Latino incumbent and beat him, Hank was there. When I was nominated by President Obama to serve as a cabinet member, he was there."

Ms. Solis says Mr. Lacayo shies away from being the center of attention and hasn't been given the public recognition he deserves.

"He's been around for a long time, and he's helped to launch a lot of careers," she says. "He's like a padrino, a godfather -- and I admire him. He has tenacity and wherewithal -- he's like a good leather belt."

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who credits Mr. Lacayo with helping him in his congressional races, agrees. "He was very involved in helping Hispanic candidates get elected to Congress," he says. "He was a very effective behind-the-scenes political gut fighter."

Mr. Lacayo's backroom work also helped elect the first black mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, who later asked him to be his deputy mayor. Mr. Lacayo declined. He had the opportunity to run for Congress in the 1960s, too, but turned that down as well.

"I never really wanted to be one of 400, because I felt that I could be more influential with some of the things I've thought important, like civic responsibility," Mr. Lacayo says.

Instead, he continued advancing other people's careers. In the mid-1980s he encouraged Maria Elena Durazo to run for president of a local union representing hotel and restaurant workers.

"It was very important for us to see a Latino in a leadership role in the labor movement because there were very few," Ms. Durazo says about Mr. Lacayo.

Ms. Durazo is now the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Lacayo was one of four founding members of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute (USHLI), which provides a training ground for present and future Hispanic leaders through a series of leadership development programs. Today, the thriving USHLI is responsible for registering thousands of Hispanic voters.

Additionally, Mr. Lacayo was deputy campaign director and state coordinator for Bill Clinton and Al Gore during the 1992 presidential election, and has served as an adviser to the Democratic National Committee and the California Democratic State Central Committee.

In recognition of Mr. Lacayo's accomplishments, California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI) recently established the Henry L. "Hank" Lacayo Workforce Community Studies Institute.

Retirement hasn't slowed Mr. Lacayo down. He is president of the Congress of California Seniors, and serves with various civic-minded groups, including the Ventura County Community Foundation, the American Red Cross and United Way.

"How can I in good conscience quit now," Mr. Lacayo says, "when I see so many people disregard their own responsibilities?"

Source: (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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