Madeline Janis and Ed Wytkind
Working people lost a long time friend and warrior last week with the death of Larry Willis, the president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO (TTD), one of the organizations that helped to found JMA. Larry, who was 53, died after a tragic bike accident. This week, the AFL-CIO and TTD published wonderful obituaries celebrating Larry’s long and extensive contributions to the fight for workers’ rights and justice for all.
We are writing, however, to tell you about what Larry meant to both of us and to Jobs to Move America.
Larry was a Washington “insider” who broke the mold. He was unassuming, extremely knowledgeable, and deeply committed to fighting for a better life for frontline workers. And no matter how busy he was, he always listened and made everyone feel like they mattered.
I first met Larry in 2011, when I was still the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and was exploring the idea of creating a new project to use the power of public purchasing to create more and better manufacturing jobs for all communities in the U.S. (What later became JMA.)
At the time, we were working with the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority to figure out how to get the U.S. Department of Transportation to let the agency purchase rail cars and buses in a way that created local factories and good jobs for communities hardest hit by the Great Recession.
In those early days, Larry sat down a number of times with me to listen and to brainstorm. The federal rules around grants to cities and states are filled with prohibitions and conditions, and Larry knew better than most how difficult the task that we set out to accomplish would be. He asked questions, brought up concerns, but always in the most positive way possible. He was encouraging and supportive.
Fast forward to 2016, during the waning days of the Obama-Biden administration after Trump’s unexpected win. During the preceding four years, Larry and TTD had helped launch JMA and had helped to win the hard-fought approval by the DOT of a set of powerful new policy mechanisms to create good U.S. manufacturing jobs called the U.S. Employment Plan. The Obama administration’s DOT had issued a public letter in early 2016 supporting the program. However, with Trump’s victory, we feared the new administration would be quick to declare any program benefiting historically marginalized workers as a “burden” on business.
It was then that Larry’s quiet genius and extensive relationships kicked into gear. I called him in a panic almost exactly four years ago and asked if he thought the administration would be willing to acknowledge the legality of the program. Larry listened, asked lots of questions, and went to work.
On January 19, 2017, because of Larry’s advocacy, a signed letter from the Acting General Counsel of the Department of Transportation acknowledged the positive results of the U.S. Employment Plan in the many cities that had used it. Credit for that goes to our friend and great colleague Larry Willis who once again, had advocated for working people and prevailed.
Larry, rest in peace.
Larry Willis was my friend and brother for two decades. We worked together to build a strong organization, TTD, that was resilient and ready to take on the big challenges. Larry was such a valued partner and counsel as we set out to put TTD on the frontlines of advocating for worker-centered transportation policies.
His mastery of complex issues was indispensable in our launch of JMA. His ability to translate wonk into digestible policy proposals. His ability to humanize, of all things, procurement. And his ability to explain to public officials how the big ideas behind JMA were actually in the end, just about building power for workers and communities.
Larry did everything in life with a rare zeal. It didn’t matter if he was preparing to go camping or skiing or putting final touches on congressional testimony — Larry put everything he had into it. That is how in the span of two decades he strengthened worker protections in our laws; expanded collective bargaining; raised the bar on transportation safety and security, and helped to mainstream the importance of transportation into our politics.
But what we remember most about Larry is his decency, curiosity and passion. Decent in how he treated others. Curious in how he consumed ideas. And passionate in his pursuit of a more just nation. Larry’s shoes will not soon be filled. But the best way to honor Larry is for JMA and all of us to carry on his work with the same gusto with which he lived his life. I will miss this leader and dear friend.