Pioneer Woman, 1934-2013

Virginia Blaisdell PhotoA memorial service is planned for a New Haven office worker who not only changed her life and those of her colleagues—but also helped change the face of the American labor movement.

Her name is Lucille Dickess. She died last week at the age of 79. Friends and others who marched alongside her will remember her at a special service March 23 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at Iovanne Funeral Home, 11 Wooster Pl.

They’ll remember not just a beloved individual, but a woman who made a difference. She was an officer worker at Yale watching from a distance as a wave of unions tried unsuccessfully to organize the university’s pink-collar workforce. Then, in the early 1980s, the hotel and restaurant workers union took on the challenge with a Yale-educated organizer, John Wilhelm, at the helm. Dickess leaped into the effort, working tirelessly to combat Yale’s argument that a union would destroy the “collegial” nature of the workforce. As a one-time “scab” in a previous labor dispute, and a veteran Yale office worker, she had credibility. The union succeeded in winning an election to form Local 34 of the Federation of University Workers, then, with Dickess on the front lines, triumphed in a series of bitter strikes to dramatically increase the wages and benefits of the largely female pink-collar workforce. The success at Yale inspired similar organizing drives among women at other universities across the country. Dickess herself became the president of Local 34. After her retirement she continued being active, leading a group of retirees to occupy Yale’s investment office during a 2003 strike.

Following are excerpts provided by the union from an interview Vinnie Wilhelm conducted with Dickess:

I had totally rejected the UAW because they told us they were going to do it, and not to worry about anything.  “Sign the card, we’ll take care of everything.”  When HERE [Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union] came in, it was different.  With HERE it came down to, “This will be your union, and you’ll have to make of it what you will.”  Now, none of us knew anything about unions, really, so this was an amazing step we took, just to say, “The worst thing here are job descriptions and salaries.”  But how in the world do you fix that?  Where do you begin to fix that?

Well, the HERE organizers said, “You have to talk to everybody,” and that made sense to me.

I loved the structure.  Loved it.  I just loved it.  I’m responsible for sixty-one people.  I know who’s got trouble at home, who’s got trouble at work, who’s being threatened.  This was so satisfying, mathematically, and physically, and emotionally, and practically.  A lot of people were very afraid to get involved.  I was hearing from people, “I’m afraid I’ll get fired.”  “I don’t know anything about unions.”  “You have to pay union dues.”  “I’ll get in trouble.”  “Nobody else here is interested, it’s only me.”  There were probably as many reasons as there were people, when you got right down to it.

I remember we had a petition – I can’t even think which one, but we had 1,200 people sign, and when you looked at the whole sheet, it was so impressive.  You looked and found your tiny name there, and then you could see, “Oh, she signed.  Oh, look at her – she signed.”

We didn’t know where we were going, but we were going.  One of the first times I spoke at Battell Chapel, I remember saying to people, “It’s kind of like when you get married, or you get divorced, or your kid goes to school.  You don’t know what’s coming, but you know you’re going along this way.  And so without knowing, it’s scary.  But whatever we do, it’s going to be ours, and the mistakes we make are going to be ours, and we’re going to decide, what are we doing?”

When they finally announced the vote, I was standing next to Marguerite Anderson, Frank Anderson’s wife, and I was crying, and she was crying, and I remember she was saying, “Free at last!  Lord, free at last!”  Yeah, that was something.

Right after I became president of Local 34, I was invited to a Local 35 membership meeting so people would get to meet me.  I told them that I had scabbed.  Because I’d been asked to work in dining halls when one of the strikes was on.  I was just divorced, there was no sign of any child support coming in, and also my husband had signed bankruptcy, so everybody in the world was coming after me for all of these bills he hadn’t paid, and I still had one child at home.  So I didn’t give a thought to the fact that people were out on strike – all I thought was, I can make some extra money.  And I went into dining halls and I scabbed, I told them.

I just wanted them to know: don’t ever write anybody off, because I changed.  I came all that way from non-thinking, not knowing, and I learned, and so here’s where I am now.  So a lot of people were not too thrilled to hear me say this, but afterwards Tom (Gaudioso) said to me, “I’ve got to give it to you: you had a lot of balls to say that to them.”  And I said, “Well, I wanted them to understand somehow that when we were crossing their lines, we weren’t thinking, we weren’t conscious of what was going on, and shame on us that we didn’t find out about it.  But once we did, we learned: here’s how you do.”

35 was always a model to me.  They really were.  To accept us, who had crossed their lines for so many years – to accept us as their partners, to work together and never mind our differences, to put aside all that resentment and hurt and join together so closely that we were really brothers and sisters.

In 1984, the members of Local 34 struck for 10 weeks to win a first contract.

The general feeling all over town was that these people are having a good time and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.  What’s going on?  People wrote newspaper articles saying, “These people don’t know how to strike.  They’re singing and they had a bake sale, and what the hell kind of picket line is this?”

It was staggering the amount of people who became interested.  Just staggering.  You just couldn’t believe it.  You have to understand that in the beginning none of us knew how this was going to end up, or how it was going to be.  We were jumping out of the airplane.  We had no idea that it was going to be as big and important and worldwide, and that anybody else would pay any mind, that anybody would be interested, never mind care.  So this was a continual source of amazement to all of us as we went along – that, holy mackerel, here comes César Chávez.  What the hell?  And here comes the head of NOW.  Pete Seeger wrote me a letter and wanted our music.  It was just absolutely overwhelming that we were doing something that had such a significance to so many other people

Years later, I bumped into (a woman from the picket line) and she said, “You know, that was the most wonderful thing I ever did in my entire life.”  And I would bet, if you went around and asked everybody who was out on the line in that strike, you’d have 95% of them say the same thing.  Absolutely.  Because you were taking the power yourself.

John (Wilhelm) doesn’t like it when I thank him, but he was responsible for even thinking that I could be a leader, because I sure didn’t think so.  I mean, sometimes when people believe in you, you can live up to their expectations.  But I always ask him, “Why did you pick me?  Why ever did you pick me?”  Because, as I could see it, I didn’t have anything outstanding that would make somebody say, “Oh boy, she is going to be a leader.”  We never quite got accustomed to that one, being the leaders.  But of course the responsibilities we had – if anyone had told any of us in the very beginning what we would be capable of doing, we never would’ve believed it.  We never, ever, ever would’ve believed it.

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Following is Dickess’s obituary from Iovanne Funeral Home:

Lucille A. Dickess of Wallingford CT died peacefully at home on February 21, 2013 surrounded by her loving family. She was the daughter of Fred and Albertina Kavalowsky Apuzzo formerly of Hamden, CT. She was the mother of Frederick C. Dickess (Wendi) of Torrington, CT, Elysia A. Bates (James) of Plainfield, CT and Paula E. Sullo (Vincenzo G. “Jimmy”) of East Haven, CT, grandmother of Rachel Vanderploeg (David) of Centennial, Colorado and Jesse Sanford (Christina) of Awasso, Oklahoma, and great grandmother of Max Vanderploeg. She is also survived by several nieces, nephews, and cousins.
Lucille’s family gratefully thank her friend and doctor, Dr. Mark David Siegel, Southeastern CT Hospice, and all of the wonderful caregivers that we have met along the way during the past few years. Special thanks to Lucille’s neighbors Sharon and Sandy - “the girls.”
Lucille was born in New Haven, CT on March 26, 1934. She attended Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, CT and was a member of their second graduating class. She attended the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey and completed her bachelor of arts and masters degrees at Southern CT State University.
After her children were born, she began work at Yale University. Lucille and a small band of friends organized the first clerical and technical worker’s union at Yale. Local 34’s first contract was ratified and recognized in 1985. She was elected as their first president. Her union activities led her to New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia and the Phil Donahue Show. Lucille was also the founder of the Yale Unions Retirees Association. Her work for “the cause” was tireless and one of her proudest accomplishments. She retired from Yale University as the registrar of Geology and Geophysics in 1997. She spent her retirement traveling to China, Italy, San Francisco and enjoying family vacations at her favorite place, Sanibel-Captiva Island, Florida.
Lucille loved to garden, watch movies, debate politics, read, shop for shoes, and laugh. She liked all kinds of music and loved to dance. She was bemused by today’s technology. In her final days, she had the opportunity to read from a Kindle (“but how do the books get in there?”), enjoy her favorite cupcakes from Sugar Bakery, Elysia’s apple cake and make some great memories with her children.
She had strong opinions, fast wit and a beautiful spirit. Lucille’s friends and family love and miss her.
Relatives and friends are invited to attend a Memorial Service at Iovanne Funeral Home on Saturday March 23, 2013 from 9:00 a.m.-11:00 a.m. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the CT Food Bank, P.O. Box 8686 New Haven, CT 06531. - See more at:


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posted by: Cora Collins on March 1, 2013  4:00pm

Lucille was just as described in this article.  A flood of memories were triggered while reading this.

There were so many of us who traveled this road to Union victories at Yale many times, but the first time when we won recognition and then the very first complete Local 34 contract in January, 1985, was in many ways the best.

I’m close to retirement myself and have a much more secure future, and have enjoyed a much more stable and financially rewarding worklife at Yale because of the Unions at Yale and all of the terrific folks who built the union and continue to build it together.