Larry Hanley, who rode a professional start as a Bus Operator in Brooklyn to become International President of the Amalgamated Transit Union while playing key behind-the-scenes roles in two city transit strikes and revitalizing a union that had been hamstrung by organized-crime control of its largest New York local, died May 7 at age 62.

The cause of death was not known, but Charles Greinsky, a longtime friend, said he had been hospitalized a day earlier and his condition worsened the following morning.

‘Tragic Loss for Labor’

“This is an unfathomable and tragic loss for the ATU and the entire labor movement,” ATU International Vice President Javier Perez said on the union’s website.



Similar tributes came from other union leaders and those from the worlds of politics and academia whom he had befriended over the years, with some comparing him to Michael J. Quill, the late Transport Workers Union leader whose defiance of powerful people and passion for the union members he represented more than a half-century ago were mirrored by Mr. Hanley.

“He cared about everybody else first,” said Mr. Greinsky, at whose wedding 26 years ago the union leader served as best man.

“He’s a guy who really rose from the ranks,” said Joshua Freeman, a History Professor at both Queens College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. “He was a radical guy who connected with workers. I think he got a kick out of being the head of the ATU and being able to do some of the things he’d always wanted to try.”

Revived Dems in S.I.

Mr. Hanley was heavily involved in politics from the time in the late 1980s when he used his position as president of ATU Local 726, representing bus personnel in Staten Island, as a base from which to revitalize the borough’s Democratic Party, which had been eclipsed by Republicans over the course of that decade. He served as the Staten Island chairman of David Dinkins’s 1989 mayoral campaign, helping to elect New York’s first African-American Mayor at a time when few white-ethnic labor leaders were rallying to him and his local was predominantly white.

“He was a good guy,” Mr. Dinkins said in a May 9 phone interview. “He was supportive and helpful to me.”

Mr. Hanley’s political activism intersected with his union work. Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari consolidated his power with a growing Republican majority, particularly after he used a voter referendum on seceding from New York City to pump up turnout that gave Rudy Giuliani nearly his entire margin of victory citywide in his 1993 rematch with Mr. Dinkins. The union leader found himself increasingly forced to ward off privatization of some routes that had long been worked by his members using bus-company owners who were donors to the campaigns of Mr. Molinari and Mr. Giuliani.

Former City Councilman Sal Albanese, who with Mr. Hanley’s strong political and financial support unsuccessfully tried in 1992 to wrest a congressional seat previously held by Mr. Molinari from his daughter, Susan, recalled appearances at town hall meetings and Staten Island Borough Hall at which Mr. Hanley highlighted the connections of those contractors to the Mayor and Borough President, once bringing a stage-coach to Borough Hall to dramatize what he described as a highway robbery in progress.

Down-to-Earth Visionary

“He would tackle issues on a ground level and also had that rare strategic vision where he would go on MSNBC and talk about the future of labor,” Mr. Albanese recalled. He said that beyond his quick mind, Mr. Hanley’s sheer physical bulk gave him a presence that stood out in a crowd. He first encountered the union leader while hosting a town hall meeting for his constituents in a district covering western Brooklyn and a slice of Staten Island.

The featured speaker was David Gunn, the innovative President of the Transit Authority who did not endear himself to transit workers with his attempts to broadband job titles and take other steps they viewed as anti-labor.

As Mr. Gunn addressed the crowd, Mr. Albanese recalled, “I remember seeing this very big guy stand up. And I could see Gunn’s face turn white, like, ‘Oh, no, it’s Hanley.’”

Mr. Giuliani, a former Federal prosecutor who had made his reputation in the courtroom convicting corrupt politicians and Mafia bosses, welcomed the confrontations with Mr. Hanley—up to a point. In June 2001, six months from the end of his second term as Mayor, he went to Staten Island for a town hall meeting and found himself being heckled by Mr. Hanley and other union activists about having awarded two express-bus routes to the owner of Atlantic Express, who had contributed to his campaign and also had one of his buses travel the streets of the borough during his 1997 re-election campaign with a giant sign promoting Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Molinari.

Mayor Lost It

When the union officials accused the Mayor of having corrupted the process by making the awards outside normal channels so they wouldn’t need City Council approval, Mr. Giuliani responded, “You’re a bunch of idiots. You’re acting like morons.”

Gene O’Donnell, an ex-cop and Queens prosecutor who is a Professor of Law and Police Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the day after Mr. Hanley died, “He had a comprehensive disdain for Rudy from the get-go. Long before anybody knew who Rudy was, he knew who Rudy was, attacking government workers when he thought it would help him.”

He said Mr. Hanley “loved Mike Quill, an Irish immigrant who was totally progressive,” and who, perhaps not coincidentally, had the same unbridled contempt for a self-proclaimed reform Mayor—in his case, John Lindsay—that the Local 726 president developed over a longer block of time for Mr. Giuliani. “He had a great sense of humor, and he was self-deprecating. But he was a Happy Warrior. He never ran from a fight.”

Several of those who knew Mr. Hanley well echoed Mr. Freeman’s remark about his ability to connect with workers. His perceiving that quality in Bernie Sanders led him to strongly back the Vermont Senator’s run for president in 2016, even as most union leaders who got involved in the Democratic primaries endorsed the heavy favorite for the party’s nomination, Hillary Clinton. What was particularly intriguing about Mr. Hanley’s choice was that his daughter was working as a campaign aide for the former Secretary of State. But he spoke early in the primary process of Mr. Sanders’s ability to strike chords with working-class voters that seemed outside Ms. Clinton’s range, and while she defeated her rival in the primaries, that weakness proved her undoing in the general election.

A Change of Heart

Two months prior to his death, Mr. Hanley seemed less enthusiastic about Mr. Sanders, noting that there were several other candidates who were taking some of the same populist stands that he had espoused. Mr. Albanese said last week that his cooling on the man who at that time was the front-runner among declared candidates seeking to unseat President Trump had a more-specific origin.

“He was a strong populist,” Mr. Albanese said of Mr. Hanley. “One of the reasons he soured on Sanders was because he felt he wasn’t warm enough, and too abrupt with labor leaders and union members.”

State Sen. Diane Savino, who was a vice president of Social Service Employees Local 371 of District Council 37 before her election 15 years ago, said that wasn’t the only instance in which Mr. Hanley held political figures to his own high ideals. Having decided more than 20 years ago that the Democratic Party was drifting too far from its traditional role as a champion of workers’ interests, she noted that “he was instrumental in helping to create the Working Families Party, and [eventually] he grew tired of the WFP” because he believed it had become too intent on not angering Democratic leaders who could threaten its existence by not working with it.

Mr. Hanley’s career was launched by his start as a Bus Operator at the TA in 1978 at age 21. He quickly became an activist aligned with the more-militant wing of Transport Workers Union Local 100, which two years later put heavy pressure on then-President John E. Lawe as contract talks snarled, leading to an 11-day transit strike. Even before union members were hammered by penalties under the Taylor Law, which had been enacted in the wake of the successful 1966 strike engineered by Mr. Quill, there were trouble signs. Foremost among them was that mild early-spring weather made city residents more willing to walk great distances to get to their jobs with trains and buses out of service.

Transfer Put Him in ATU

The activists argued that despite the heavy penalties, which brought the union close to bankruptcy as the suspension of its right to have dues automatically deducted from employees’ paychecks left Local 100 officials forced to try to collect them by hand from members whose own wallets were hurting.

That didn’t dampen Mr. Hanley’s enthusiasm for union work. A transfer to Staten Island took him out of Local 100’s bargaining unit and placed him in the much-smaller Local 726. It also created more room for speedy advancement: by 1984 he had been elected secretary-treasurer of the local, and three years later began a 15-year run as president.

Along the way, he became convinced that the key to successful union activism was to enlist public support. He built coalitions with transit riders built around keeping the fare from rising, and later reached out to mass-transit advocates and environmentalists who also saw benefit in greater funding for local transit systems offering alternatives that reduced air pollution.

“If there was a cause in the city that benefited working people and benefited labor, he would be there,” Mr. Albanese said.

His determination to build alliances was reflected in a statement issued by American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox, who called him “a dedicated trade-union activist who spent the past four decades fighting for workers’ rights and promoting mass transit.”

Aided ‘Shutdown’ Workers

He continued, “Larry’s commitment to the labor movement and working people did not end at his doorstep—Larry and ATU have always shown tremendous solidarity with AFGE and Federal and D.C. government workers. During the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, Larry used his time and resources to set up free meals for Federal workers in the Silver Spring, Maryland community, making sure no one who was working without a paycheck had to go hungry.”

In 2002, Mr. Hanley left the local for a staff job with the ATU in Washington, D.C. Two years later, he became an international vice president, but he also grew disillusioned with the sluggish responses of the union’s board to looming crises.

One of those involved one of the national union’s largest locals—1181—which represented school bus personnel in the city and on Long Island. In 2005, its two top officials were indicted: President Salvatore Battaglia and Secretary-Treasurer Julius “Spike” Bernstein. They were accused of allowing the local to be controlled by one of the bosses of the Genovese Crime Family, Matthew “Matty the Horse” Ianniello, who was said to be a close friend of Mr. Bernstein’s going back at least to the 1970s.

Yet the ATU did not—as other national unions had in response to corruption that did not involve major organized-crime involvement—immediately place the union in receivership. That would not happen until more than a year later, and nearly three months after Mr. Ianniello made a plea agreement acknowledging that he had controlled Local 1181’s operations and Mr. Bernstein also agreed to cooperate with the government probe.

A Toothless Probe

International President Warren George acted then—in part because prosecutors had compelled Mr. Battaglia to resign as president of the local as a condition for his being eligible to be free on bail—but after appointing an outside lawyer to conduct an investigation of the full extent of the corruption, he allowed union officials who were not removed by the government to decline to answer questions posed by the attorney and still keep their jobs.

That half-hearted response, and discontent that the union wasn’t doing more to prevent layoffs of its workers around the country prompted Mr. Hanley to challenge Mr. George’s re-election bid in 2010. The incumbent ultimately announced his retirement less than three months before the vote was to be held, and Mr. Hanley easily defeated his interim successor and set about trying to transform the union into a more-honest and vibrant organism than the one that had barely shrugged when it was initially charged that Mr. Battaglia had, among other things, accepted payoffs from bus-company owners in return for not organizing their members or assisting the owners in winning or retaining bus routes from the city Department of Education.

John Samuelsen, who became president of TWU Local 100 the same year that Mr. Hanley won the reins of the national ATU, then became national president of the TWU three years ago, said there had been organizing and jurisdictional disputes between them that created tensions, but praised Mr. Hanley for being a “productive and helpful” influence during and after the 2005 transit strike and a good partner on a joint campaign in 2010 that was “successful in bringing attention to the cyclical disinvestment in mass transit.”

‘Made the ATU Progressive’

Mr. Freeman credited the late ATU leader with having “really changed that union and made it into a progressive union.”

ATU International Vice President John Costa said in a statement, “Larry showed what is possible for our Union and within each one of us—if we believe, dream, fight and work hard together.”

“He was a giant,” Mr. Albanese said.

Mr. Hanley is survived by his wife, Thelma, and his two grown children, Monica and Lawrence Jr. 

Funeral services will be held May 14 at The Church of Our Lady of Pity, 1616 Richmond Ave in Staten Island at 10:30 a.m. The ATU has asked that a moment of silence be observed in his memory at 10 a.m. that day.

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(1) comment


This world does not have enough people like Larry Hanley. When we lose one it hurts.

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