‘Do What You Can, When You Can’: Retired IAM Organizing Leader Honored by Tennessee Local 480

As one IAM retiree put it, “Do what you can, when you can.”

But this retiree happens to be former IAM Organizing Director Larry Washam. His comments were made as a lifetime achievement plaque to honor him was presented at the February retiree meeting of “Atomic” Local 480 (District 1888) in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

After 48 years of service as a member of the IAM, Washam continues to lead and to organize when he can, and where he can.

“As far as a union man, I’ve met none better. As far as a person, he is better than that.” said Atomic Local 480 President Barry Elkins, who helped present the award.

“I was surprised,” said Washam. “[It] almost brought a tear to my eye.”

Washam hired into Atomic Local 480 at the Y-12 Security Complex in April 1969. The complex opened in February 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project that developed the first nuclear weapons used in World War II. 

Although much of the work remains secret, it is known that enriched uranium was the production goal. To refine that material required a substantial amount of the country’s silver reserves, $5.5 billion worth of silver that the United States held at the time. Armed U.S. Army members stood guard over the site, not just to protect the secrets of the Manhattan Project, but also the 13,500 short tons of troy ounce silver on loan from the depository at West Point, N.Y. It was returned to the U.S. Treasury in 1970, when Washam was still a new hire at the site.

Over the years, the Y-12 complex was home to many patriots of the American defense industry. Washam was one of those patriots to rise to the top.

He was recording secretary of Atomic Local 480 in 1982 and president of the local from 1984 until 1987. He became District 169 business representative in October 1987 and then his position of union organizer led to an appointment as a Grand Lodge Representative.

In May of 2005, Washam was appointed to be the IAM’s Organizing Director.

“[The International President] told me I was born to be a Machinist,” said Washam, noting his birthday, May 5, matches the IAM’s birthday.

But Washam’s efforts in the union are not the only thing that set him apart as a leader.  In 1987, the Oak Ridge City Council appointed him as Commissioner of the Housing Authority, serving a five year term.  

Washam was also President of the Oak Ridge Central Labor Council and engineered the merger of that council with the Knoxville council. He prides himself on the fact that as a council, they were able to maintain nearly complete memberships of dues-paying union members in a right-to-work-for-less state like Tennessee.  

“No free riders,” says Washam.

Retired since 2008, Washam says the key is to stay active. 

“It’s good to socialize. Stay active, mentally and physically.” Washam said of the purpose behind his leadership of Atomic Local 480’s Retirees Club.  “We have specialists speak at our meetings to help retirees understand how important it is to stay active and be consistent.”

Atomic Local 480 President Elkins says he is proud of the work Washam does with the retirees club. 

“He keeps up with every one of them.,” said Elkins. “He has speakers come in, and Larry will personally help members with insurance and benefits questions that come up.”

Asked what his biggest accomplishment was during his nearly 50 year career, Washam deferred to the members he served, as true leaders often do. 

“I was raised to always try to help people,” said Washam. Organizing means real changes to wages, benefits, and working conditions. It’s ingrained in me to be helpful to people.”  

The plaque presented to him by Atomic Local 480 may hold a short list of Washam’s most notable accomplishments in a union lifetime, but after a half century of doing what you can, when you can, many IAM members appreciate his heart more than his resume.

Share and Follow: