Our Nation Needs More Thomas Van Arsdale's
Flanked by family and friends while Local 3 IBEW laid him to rest, his life should be emulated by all
The IBEW regrets to announce the death of former International Treasurer Thomas P. Van Arsdale, one of the giants of the Brotherhood from a family of icons. He was 94.
“Tom was a legend, smart, honest and tough,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “There are very few who could claim to have done more for the IBEW and our members than Tom.”
Brother Van Arsdale was a third-generation wireman. His grandfather, Harry Van Arsdale Sr., joined the Electrical Mechanical Wireman’s Union, which later became New York Local 3, around the turn of the 20th century. His father, Harry Van Arsdale Jr., was business manager of Local 3 from 1933 to 1968 and founding president of the New York Central Labor Council from its founding in 1957 until his death in 1986.
Van Arsdale joined the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1943 while attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He served for three years, rising to the rank of Ensign, including a stint overseas during World War II. He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1945 and immediately applied for the Local 3 apprenticeship. He was initiated into the union where he began work in a supply house, then a cable manufacturing facility and a fixture company. A year later he started his apprenticeship, and in 1947 he became the secretary of the committee of the apprentices, negotiating the first of hundreds of contracts he’d oversee over the years.
Brother Van Arsdale worked with the tools for seven years, but he joined the Local 3 executive board only two years after topping out. In 1958, he came on staff as a business representative and was appointed a director of the Electrical Workers Benefit Society. He was a delegate to the 1962 IBEW convention, the first of many, where he served on the Resolutions and Law committee. That same year he went on a solo goodwill trip to the capitals of 10 South American countries, meeting with labor activists and government officials. A year later he made a 20-day trip to meet with trade unionists in Tokyo, Manila, Singapore, Rome, Italy, Berlin, Paris and London.
In 1964, Van Arsdale joined the National Electrical Code and Standards Committee, a position he held for 14 years. In 1965, he was appointed the assistant business manager for manufacturing.
In 1968, after 31 years, Van Arsdale’s father stepped down as business manager of Local 3, and the executive board elected Van Arsdale to finish the term. He was elected to his first full term a year later and was re-elected to the post for nearly four decades.
In an interview around the time of his retirement, Van Arsdale talked about the transition that he had been groomed for.
“To be business manager is like stepping out of the dark into the light, or vice versa,” he said, showing his sense of humor.
Van Arsdale took over Local 3 at the height of the power and reach of organized labor in New York City. He was in high demand for charity and governmental boards, serving at some point on the board of the New York State Association of Electrical Workers, the Executive Committee of the New York City Council on Economic Education, the Labor Advisory Committee at Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, on the board of trustees of the State University of New York, theboard of directors of the Catholic Interracial League, the Police Athletic League, the Greater New York Fund and the United Way, among many others.
But the majority of his leadership came as the city and labor slipped into the crisis of the 70s and 80s.
“He was a quiet, reserved man of integrity and also a realist,” said International Executive Council chairman and Local 3 Business Manager Christopher Erikson, Van Arsdale’s nephew. “He had control over the labor movement in very difficult times and had to make many difficult, sometimes unpopular decisions. If it was the right decision, even though it might have been politically unpopular, he made it, and his legacy speaks for itself.”
He spoke out against Apartheid in South Africa when many didn’t, Erikson said, and was committed to diversity in Local 3 and the trades so that men and women from every background benefited from the opportunities in the union trades. In 1975 he received the Award of Merit from the Black Trade Unionists and the Hispanic Labor Committee Award.
“He was bold that way,” Erikson said.
Since 1900, a member of Local 3 had filled the part-time position of International Treasurer. In 1978, Van Arsdale continued that storied tradition, proudly serving two decades as the Brotherhood’s final International Treasurer. In 1998, the position was combined with International Secretary, and future IBEW president Edwin D. Hill took over the second highest post in the IBEW. Van Arsdale was then appointed to a three-year term as Treasurer Emeritus working on special projects for then-International President J.J. Barry.
In 1986, after a contentious three-way campaign, Van Arsdale was elected president of the 1 million-member New York City Central Labor Council, replacing his father, who had been president for 31 years. Van Arsdale held that post until 1995.
In 2006, 73 years after he accompanied his father to a convention of the New York State Labor Federation and watched future AFL-CIO president George Meany speak, 61 years after his initiation into the local that defined his life, Van Arsdale stepped down as business manager.
Ten years later, though his health was failing, Van Arsdale made his final speech to the IBEW, on video, to the thousands assembled for the 2016 convention.
“125 years ago, electrical workers just like you and I founded the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers here in St. Louis. Now it is your responsibility, for you are the future of the IBEW,” he said. “Embrace the challenge. Embrace new ideas. Do not fear failure. Fear not trying. Echoing and living the words of Winston Churchill can only aid in the success of the IBEW: never, never, never give up. I wish you all a successful convention and a bright future for the IBEW.”
The officers, staff and members of the IBEW extend our deepest condolences to Brother Van Arsdale’s wife, Phyllis, his daughters Pat, Susan and Jean, his 12 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and to his friends and Local 3 family.
A funeral mass was held at St. Nicholas of Tolentine at 150-75 Goethals Avenue in Jamaica, Queens May 23. He was interred at Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery at 164-15 Booth Avenue, Fresh Meadows in Queens, the borough where he was born and lived his whole life.
Condolences may be sent to Phyllis Van Arsdale at 161-02 Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Avenue, Flushing, NY, 11365.