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Glenn Dowdy: the '110 percent' union man

Berry Craig
28 Nov, 2022
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AFT Local 1360

"Glenn Dowdy was a great trade unionist who put his heart and soul into the labor movement, especially in western Kentucky," remembered Kentucky State AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan. 

Dowdy, a longtime president of the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, recently died at age 76. 

The veteran union activist who lived near Paducah also was a local union president and a member of the state AFL-CIO Executive Board. In addition, he worked for 20 years as an investigator for attorneys in Paducah and St. Louis.

"He was the right man at the right time to keep the council going," said state AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Wiggins, a Steelworker and one of the council presidents who succeeded Dowdy. 

In the 1970s, Dowdy helped resurrect the city’s Labor Day parades. For reasons unclear, they stopped after World War II. For 26 years, Dowdy was president of the Western Kentucky Labor Day Committee Inc., the all-volunteer group that puts on the annual end-of-summer holiday processions.

Dowdy, too, helped raise funds to get a mural honoring local unions painted on the Paducah floodwall and he led a campaign to preserve an old steam engine in tribute to the city's rich railroad heritage. "He was a great guy," Wiggins said.

In addition, Dowdy, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saw the union and civil rights movements as natural allies. Hence, he encouraged local union members to attend the city's MLK birthday celebrations in January. "Glenn was always for everybody working together," said J.W. Cleary, Paducah-McCracken County NAACP president, and a retired Steelworker. 

Cleary often attended monthly council meetings which, in Dowdy’s day, almost always drew standing-room-only crowds. Meetings were often lively and debates freewheeling, especially over which political candidates to endorse or to recommend for endorsement to the state AFL-CIO.

"But Glenn had the knack of bringing people together," Cleary said. "He was union all the way."

Dowdy was indeed "very dedicated to the labor movement," said Howard "Bubba" Dawes, a retired Machinists union official and current council recording secretary. "He was also always active in politics and community service."

That service including lining up donations and other support for the iron horse memorial near the floodwall. The 1923-vintage Illinois Central locomotive is coupled to a baggage car and a caboose. Union labor at the old IC Shops rebuilt the engine before it was retired and donated to the city.

Larry Sanderson, a retired UA international representative and former council delegate from Paducah Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 184, described Dowdy as "a dedicated union man who went at it 110 percent of the time."

Sanderson said Dowdy started the annual W.C. Young Award, the highest honor the council bestows. It is named for the late W.C. Young of Paducah, a national labor and civil rights leader. Young received the first award in 1994; Sanderson is among subsequent recipients.

Dowdy was suggested for the Young Award more than once. He declined, insisting that others were more deserving of the honor, including Wiggins, the 2014 winner.

Before he was elected council head, Dowdy was president of United Auto Workers Local 1125 at the CTS factory which made loudspeakers. When the facility closed, he joined the Service Employees International Union. "He became a one-man union," said Bonnie Edwards, who started out representing her ILGWU local at the council and wound up a delegate from AIM-UNITE HERE! Chapter 22, a union retiree group.

"Glenn believed in people being treated fairly," she said. "He didn't like it when companies would close plants and move them out of the country."

She cited his leadership in the mural project. The artwork—one of several murals representing important events in Paducah history--shows a Labor Day parade. The large painting depicts several local labor leaders, Dowdy not among them.

“Glenn was the one that collected all the money for it, but he didn’t want to be on it,” Edwards said. “He said that mural wasn't for him--it was for the people of western Kentucky who did so much for the labor movement." 

Dowdy also did much for Democrats, locally and statewide. His party loyalty did not go unrecognized.  

On election eve 1992, Dowdy was at Barkley Regional Airport to help welcome Bill Clinton. Paducah was one of several stops the Democratic presidential nominee made on his eight-state, coast-to-coast blitz in his campaign jet.

So four years later, Dowdy was invited on stage when Clinton and Vice President Al Gore returned for a rally at Paducah's Ohio riverfront. Dowdy also got to ride the Clinton-Gore campaign bus which toured western Kentucky, stopping in Mayfield and other communities.

But Dowdy was always a trade unionist first. He regularly walked picket lines in solidarity with striking unions. Often, he was accompanied by Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 184 delegate Joe Littleton, who was also the council recording secretary. "Glenn was a diehard union member, and he was a great inspiration to me. He didn't chew his words up. He spit them out. He didn't candy coat them."

Littleton remembered the time he and Dowdy joined pickets at the old Columbia Theater in downtown Paducah and dodged a flying whiskey bottle. "This car drove by and somebody threw the bottle at us. It missed and broke on the wall behind us,” Littleton said with a chuckle. “Glenn gave them a good cussing, and they went on down Broadway."