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Retiring union leader John Penn’s parting wisdom for the labor movement

Carleigh Gray
WGLT file
John Penn, left, with then-candidate for governor JB Pritzker during a campaign stop in Bloomington in 2017.

A labor legend who shaped working life for decades of McLean County residents is finally taking some time off.

John Penn retired this week from his job as vice president and Midwest regional manager for the Laborers International (LiUNA). He’s served in union leadership roles for nearly 50 years, including as business manager for Bloomington Laborers Local 362. He was also the chair of the McLean County Democrats during much of that time.

Penn’s first job, though, was a 15-year-old flagger on a road construction project just south of Veterans Parkway. It gave him firsthand experience with what it feels like to be in a dangerous workplace.

“I remember jumping off that road four, five, six different times to avoid being hit by traffic,” Penn said.

One example of Penn’s record of results came in 1979, when 57-year-old laborer Gerald D. Smith was struck and killed while flagging a construction project on Interstate 55 in Normal. Penn shut down over $5 million in highway work to protest unsafe conditions.

“He was the fifth flag person that died in five consecutive years. So shame on me for waiting as four more men died,” Penn said on WGLT’s Sound Ideas. “Everybody said it was safe. Go back to work. … Our position was, we’re going to a funeral tomorrow. It’s not safe.”

Union leader John Penn, center, in 1978, showing solidarity during the Normal firefighters strike.
Mike Lass via Jim Schrepfer
Union leader John Penn, center, in 1978, showing solidarity during the Normal firefighters strike.

In response to the protest, the Illinois Department of Transportation formed its Work Zone Safety Committee. Highway laborers now work behind walls, with flashing arrow signs, certification classes for flaggers, and enforceable speed limits in work zones.

“It’s worked,” Penn said. “It’s still very dangerous out there. We still lose people on the highway. But it has reduced the number. But one is one too many.”

Another priority for Penn, an Air Force veteran, was to raise the profile of unions in Bloomington-Normal by encouraging members to serve and volunteer their time with community groups – integrating them more fully into a part of civic life historically dominated by business leaders.

“We did it with membership, not with leadership. It’s important because the person you’re talking to all of a sudden goes, ‘I saw that young man. His kid plays ball with my kid.’ Or, ‘He’s a soccer coach or softball coach.’ All of a sudden, we’re laborers in the room. It changed the image of who we were. And that was important,” Penn said. “Every two years, the Chamber of Commerce would put two new people on the EDC board. They’re sitting down with a union official – a Democrat – and they’re uncomfortable. But after three or four meetings, everybody’s comfortable, enjoying one another, exchanging stories, and working together. This community always did have an open-door policy with organized labor.”

Those labor-management ties continue today. One example: The annual Children’s Christmas Party for low-income families is co-sponsored by the McLean County Chamber of Commerce and the Bloomington-Normal Trades and Labor Assembly.

Penn’s last role with LiUNA included a 10-state Midwest territory, including places that are not nearly as union-friendly as Illinois, where voters passed the Workers Rights Amendment last November.

“These people have no workers’ rights. To live in this state, and to have the rights we have, to have the elected officials that look after the citizens of this state, we’re very proud of that,” Penn said. “We cannot afford to think that this state may end up being like the right-to-work states around us.”

Penn lived at that intersection of organized labor and politics. He was chair of the McLean County Democrats from 1984 to 2018 – a 34-year run at a time when this was a very red county.

“We held our own, but we weren’t gaining,” Penn said. “We were up against a pretty strong establishment of people tied to the Republican Party. … We knew we weren’t gonna win countywide. We knew we could win at the City Council (level).”

Penn praised those who’ve been running the local Democratic Party in the six years since he stepped down. But he said today’s political energy in McLean County is “night and day” to what he experienced; there’s now a Democrat representing Bloomington-Normal in the Illinois House, Illinois Senate, and U.S. House.

“I didn’t have a Donald Trump as somebody who could draw energy to the men and women and youth … I think if I had Donald Trump in the 1970s and 1980s, it would have made a difference,” Penn said.

Penn was inducted into the Illinois Labor History Society’s Union Hall of Honor in December.

In retirement, the 74-year-old Penn said he and his wife and plan to do some traveling, though they’ll be sticking around Bloomington-Normal.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.