The Texas AFL-CIO was saddened to learn that Connie English, a third-generation railroad worker with trains in his blood who improved the livelihoods of car-driving, bus-taking, airplane-flying, block-walking workers across Texas through the labor movement, died early this morning in his beloved hometown of San Antonio at the age of 74.
Brother English served with great distinction on the Texas AFL-CIO Executive Board and was an exceptionally influential voice in setting the policies of the state labor federation. When English walked into a room full of union members, chances are someone would try to imitate his full-throated slogan that at once signaled the rhythms of the rail and union solidarity: "All aboard!!"
English spent his last days in hospice care, surrounded by generations of loved ones and occupying the thoughts and prayers of his Brothers and Sisters in the Sheet Metal Air Rail Transportation (SMART) union and all other levels of the labor movement. (A plaque given to English on the occasion of his retirement described "a smart man and a SMART man.")
"Connie English was the model of what everyone in the union movement would like to be: 100 percent committed to solidarity, 100 percent committed to labor's goals, a steadfast friend and a loving family man," Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said.
"I can't overstate what Brother English did for the state labor federation or for me personally. We loved Connie and everything he stood for."
Soft-spoken but with a powerful vision and iron will to bring that vision closer to reality, English worked in the United Transportation Union, which has a long tradition of sending two full-time lobbyists (with reinforcements as needed) during every legislative session. Following in the footsteps of mentors like Jim Atchley and Sam Arrington, English headed the union's lobbying operation in Texas from 1999 until his retirement nearly two years ago, when he handed over the reins to Kamron Saunders. The #2 now working with Saunders is Connie's son, Brian English, a fourth-generation railroad worker.
What English did for working people in Texas is largely unsung; that is the nature of the beast. But he had a profound understanding of what working people need in our state laws and, more to the point in the political environment under which he operated, he understood at a gut level what working people cannot abide. English's work at the Legislature knew no partisanship. On any number of occasions, the extraordinarily varied relationships he developed proved valuable in passing good legislation or killing bad bills.
For well over a quarter-century, English was the conscience of the United Labor Legislative Committee (ULLCO), the lobbying arm of the Texas AFL-CIO and the prime voice for working people in the Texas Legislature. He became known as the Dean of ULLCO, and was influential not just on the nuts and bolts of the legislative process, but in mentoring other labor activists.
It is unusual in any legislative session in this day and age to have more than a dozen or so bills that directly affect railroad workers. It would have been easy for UTU/SMART to focus on those bills and leave other topics to the other unions that make up ULLCO. To its credit, the union long ago rejected that approach. English chose to get in the center of a wide range of workplace issues that constituted the ULLCO agenda. English was personally generous in helping set up the periodic social events that allow ULLCO to maintain strong relationships with legislators. He believed strongly in building communications with both likely and unlikely friends, and he was willing to spend the time it took to keep other unions all aboard in that belief.
English brought his own flavor to ULLCO. When former Texas AFL-CIO President Emmett Sheppard headed ULLCO, he used a Swiss army knife to "gavel" everyone to order. As soon as English saw that the next Texas AFL-CIO President, Becky Moeller, lacked that tool, he began passing his over to start each meeting and Moeller was glad to continue the tradition.
I don't even know where to begin to thank Connie for the personal kindness he showed me over the years. On several occasions, Brother English patiently explained the ins and outs of the federal Railway Labor Act and why some of the technical points I would occasionally concoct as absolutes in my writing were really shades of gray. (It's amazing how relevant the era of the Robber Barons remains today.) At Executive Board and ULLCO meetings, English repeatedly spoke up to give me personal shout-outs for whatever work I was doing at the time. That kind of encouragement, which went out like a horn of plenty to others here in similar fashion, made a huge difference in my confidence level in an occupation that is, and I know this might be controversial in some quarters, way more art than science. Connie simply built folks up and, as if by osmosis, so did his family. If Connie was on your side, so was his wife of 51 years, Donna, and so was Brian, who is growing into another major figure in the Texas labor movement, and so are his grandkids and his great-grandkids. This is about personal debt and my admiration for how comfortable Connie was in his own skin, but as I observed him over the years, I think any number of people who have worked in our office would write a very similar paragraph about a man who knew how to wage friendship.
Cornelius "Connie" M. English Jr. graduated from San Antonio's Highlands High School in 1962, having already begun service in the Army National Guard. He entered the Army and was stationed in Fort Polk, Louisiana, at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin and, from 1962 to 1965, in Okinawa, Japan.
Upon his return to San Antonio, English went to work for Southern Pacific Transport Co. After seven years, he moved on to Southern Pacific Railroad, first as a Brakeman, then as a Conductor. In 1996, the company was bought out by Union Pacific.
English's internal influence on safety matters and grievance issues within his union is a subject for another of the many tributes that are surely in the pipeline. I don't think I'm guessing when I suggest that of all the many honors and tributes English received, his favorite may well have been one that he himself awarded to labor honorees on rare but auspicious occasions: a replica railroad lantern that is the single most beautiful union award I have ever seen.
The state labor federation extends our heartfelt condolences to the English family and to SMART on the passing of one of the most genuine people we have had the privilege to know.
Visitation will take place 5-9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19 at Mission Park Funeral Chapels, Cemeteries and Cremation Services, 1700 S.E. Military Drive, in San Antonio. Funeral service is 11 a.m. Friday, Oct. 20 at the same location. Phone: (210)924-4242.