Dec. 15, 2006 — Labor leader Ralph Mandrew died Thursday in Ft. Myers Fla., at age 77 after a long illness.
Labor Commissioner and former labor leader Cecil Benjamin called Mandrew "a stalwart soldier in the labor movement."
"He's left a tremendous legacy that not many people can measure up to," Benjamin said Friday.
Benjamin said that Mandrew's strength was that he could see both sides of the issue. From that strength came power, which he used to better the lot of the territory's workers.
He said Mandrew was also a strong organizer who brought workers together.
Mandrew cut his labor teeth in his native Three Islands, Antigua, where he worked as a sugar cane cutter.
"I was a genius with a machete," he said in a 1987 interview, as he raised his right pants leg to show a shinful of scars above his brown socks.
At age 16, he moved to the United States to work as a migrant worker, spending stints in Michigan apple orchards, Connecticut tobacco fields, New Jersey strawberry patches and Florida sugar cane fields.
As a cane cutter in Belglade, Fla., he first encountered racial prejudice. In the 1987 interview, he told how in 1952 he attempted to sit down in one of the few available seats on a Miami-bound bus. Those seats were at the front of the bus, and this being the south before civil rights, he stood at the back of the bus for the entire 88 miles to Miami.
By 1956, he was sick of migrant work and headed to Miami's Thunderbird Hotel, where he worked in the housekeeping department.
Tired of Florida's racial prejudice, he headed for New York in 1957, where he joined the housekeeping staff of the George Washington Hotel.
In 1958 he was named union shop steward, moving on to serve as business agent for the Hotel, Motel and Club Employees Union, AFL-CIO.
In 1963 he captained a bus that took hotel workers to the Rev. Martin Luther King's March on Washington. He later participated in other civil rights actions.
After realizing that labor leaders needed an education, Mandrew went to Cornell University to get a degree in labor relations.
In 1974 he returned to his old union as a general organizer.
Three years later, after hearing about the terrible working conditions experienced by hotel and restaurant workers in the Caribbean, Mandrew went to St. Croix to organize workers at St. Croix by the Sea, his first endeavor in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
For 12 years, Mandrew served as president of the V.I. Central Labor Council. He later served as president of the V. I. Workers Union Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, Local 611, until his illness forced him to step down in 2004.
Mandrew's recently published book, The Unrelenting Struggle, tells the story of his union efforts.
His wife of 35 years, Gloria Mandrew, said from her home in Estero, Fla., that her husband was a union man at heart.
"And he was a very kind person," she said.
She said that even when he didn't have the money, he gave freely to others to help them out.
Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards called Mandrew "a friend and partner in the struggle for improving the quality of life for all workers in the territory."
Richards said he visited Mandrew at his home in Florida in July and presented him with the Lifetime Service Award on behalf of the V.I. government. "Brother Ralph taught us all that while change may not always come overnight, if we continue the good fight, we will overcome," Richards said. "Like one of his role models, Dr. Martin Luther King, whom he fought with during the Civil Rights movement, Brother Ralph truly believed that 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'"
Delegate Donna M. Christensen remembered Mandrew Thursday night as a "stalwart" of the Moravian Church and as a mentor. "He was a mentor to many who are labor leaders today, so his legacy will live on," she said.
Mandrew is survived by his wife, Gloria, two children and several grandchildren.
Gloria Mandrew said that her husband will be cremated and his ashes buried by his parents in Antigua.
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