Some things just don’t mix very well: oil and water, Red Sox and Yankees, the Kardashians and modesty. Labor and management might wind up on most lists, but not here. Not in Omaha.
For almost 40 years, union workers, business owners, and civic leaders have changed the landscape of the Midlands by developing, nurturing, and realizing projects together. This alliance, unique for an American city of any size, didn’t occur by chance. It began as a calculated move by Terry Moore, long-time president of the Omaha Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.
“The one driving thing that benefits workers, business—everybody—is economic development,” declares Moore, 71. “But I knew in order for that to happen, I had to change the image of labor in this town.”
When Moore first ran for president of the Omaha Federation in 1976, he was already well-known in the labor movement. Like so many young men of his generation who grew up in South Omaha, Moore followed his older brothers and father into the then-thriving meatpacking business right out of high school in 1961 because “those plants paid the best wages in town.” He got his union card the very first day.
“My father, Charlie Moore, was actually management at Swift & Company. He was the night supervisor and everybody loved him,” says Moore. “But he said to me, ‘I want you to join the union to protect your rights, son.’”
Around the same time, Moore became involved in South Omaha politics, stumping for candidates “of both parties, whoever supported labor.” Moore got to know a lot of people on the campaign trail and realized that, to many of them, labor was still stuck in the stogie-chewing, belligerent, wiseacre era.
“So I started wearing three-piece suits,” he says, “and I purposely got to know powerful labor leaders. I told them we were misunderstood, that we came across too confrontational. I said we needed to reach out to business. They heard me and knew it was time for a change.”
Moore won the union election in 1976 with more than 70 percent of the vote. With characteristic Irish charm and energy, the diminutive Moore wore his nice threads to every breakfast, lunch, and dinner in those early years, shaking hands with business leaders and exchanging ideas on how to develop downtown Omaha—with labor as a leader. Many of the close friends he made so long ago are gone, but other friendships endure and have proven invaluable.
“I got to know Terry Moore in the ‘70s when he helped a group of us get the riverfront developed,” recalls Mike Yanney, longtime Omaha investment banker and philanthropist. “He’s trustworthy and very capable and knows how to follow through on a commitment. I couldn’t be more honored than to talk about Terry Moore.”
The two men most recently collaborated with government and business leaders to develop the new $323 million cancer research facility on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus, set to open in 2017 with a projected yearly payroll of $100 million. But they made their first economic footprints along the Missouri River.
“The first step in cleaning up downtown Omaha was creating the Central Park Mall, now known as the Gene Leahy Mall,” says Moore. “The second step was to keep ConAgra Foods in Omaha by building their new campus. Step three was the arena. And the rest is history.”
By the time the arena, now known as CenturyLink Center Omaha opened in 2003, Moore had amassed a resume filled with honors, awards, community service citations, and six pages listing labor, education, arts, charitable, and business affiliations. Equally impressive are the millions of dollars in charitable projects union workers have done pro bono through the years, including the fountain on the Creighton University campus; the Potter House, where families of children who need transplants can stay; and the annual Tree of Lights for the Salvation Army.
“Terry is an Omaha treasure…an icon in terms of building bridges between companies and labor,” says Steven Martin, President and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska. “He’s an innovator in bringing labor and management together in unique training and regulatory compliance programs.”
As Moore sits in his office at union headquarters at 6910 Pacific St. surrounded by trophies, awards, and pictures taken with every U.S. President since Jimmy Carter, he admits it’s tough keeping unions strong in this day and age. In 1976, Moore had 35,000 members in his organization. Today, that number is 25,000, which “isn’t bad,” he says, “considering the jobs lost when the packing plants left and other jobs were shipped overseas. But it goes well in Omaha.”
He has spent a lifetime fighting for equitable wages, hours, and benefits for his workers. But Moore’s own life has been beset with sadness.
His wife Tania suffers from an incurable neuromuscular disease. Moore leaves the office early to be at her side, an act of devotion played out every day for years. His oldest child, Tawni, was 28 when she suddenly died in her sleep—cause unknown. She left behind a 5-year-old son. His beloved granddaughter, 10-year-old Lita Virgilito, died in 2003 when her family’s rental home just south of Harrison Street caught fire. Moore says if his faith hadn’t been so strong, he would have never gotten over the grief.
His only son, 45-year old Terry, Jr., was born with Williams Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder characterized by learning disabilities and heart problems. But Terry is his father’s great joy and constant companion. The two can be seen every Sunday taking up the collection at St. John’s Church at Creighton.
Moore plans to run again in January for another three-year term as president of the union. With the energy of a man half his age, he still has the fire inside to do right by his workers, do well by business, and do good work for his community.