Today, many people are familiar with the name Joseph Caleb only because of the community center in Liberty City that bears his name. But as his son, I want to share what the man, Joseph Caleb, meant to me.
My father was raised by his grandparents, Alabama sharecroppers who moved to Miami’s Overtown neighborhood. He was determined to make something of himself and he wanted no less for his children.
As the civil-rights battles were waged on in the late ’60s and ’70s, minority workers continued to earn low wages. But my father, president of the Labor Union #478 and a powerful union leader, wanted to end that injustice. Being in such a critical position, he made friends as well as enemies. But he succeeded.
During his tenure, from 1963 to 1972, wages for union members more than quadrupled from $1.15 to $5.30 hourly, plus benefits. My father’s work angered contractors and developers who balked at his demands for “union-only” work sites and the higher wages for his men.
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Although he was a strong union president who stood up to unfair treatment that contractors and developers imposed upon union workers, my father also made time to pave the way for much-needed free school-lunch programs for inner-city youth through the City of Miami at various parks and playgrounds. He also instituted the Summer Jobs for Youth initiative in which youth were employed by local businesses.
My dad wasn’t just a union labor leader, he was a community leader. He was a philanthropist to more than 16 charities, such as the Tacolcy Center and YMCA.
He served as chairman of the board for the Model City Program, initiated during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration to bring a community center to the city of Miami. When the project fell through, my dad spearheaded a new initiative that ultimately passed and is now known as the Joseph Caleb Community Center. He instilled in me and my three siblings a strong work ethic and passion to make a difference in the community, which my mother, Yvonne, encouraged. I try to pass this on to my son and other young members of my family.
A 2006 article in the Miami Herald described my father’s climb:
“Caleb’s meteoric rise was sparked by an impulsive move one day when he was 21. In 1958, as a rank-and-file laborer at a Miami Beach work site he jumped into a dispute when a black foreman was to be replaced by a white one. Caleb led a successful walk-out and won the attention of union business manager, Bernard Rubin, who became his mentor. The young Caleb was made shop steward. A year later, he traded in his work clothes for a suit and tie when elected recording secretary. The gregarious Caleb was a hit with the membership. He ran for president in 1963 and won. He was 27. Caleb evolved into a man to contend with, an effective community activist who rubbed shoulders with politicos and power brokers.”
That was my dad. Loved by his men, the thousands of laborers from all walks of life, who looked up to him as their leader. A man who could improve the quality of their lives; a mission my father took very seriously. On Feb. 6, 1972, my father was murdered. There was talk that it had been union business that got him killed. I was only 13. My family was turned upside down by his sudden death. Even today, more than 40 years later, we all still feel the loss.
I’ve always wanted to be like my dad, and now I find myself proudly following in his footsteps. Like him, I am proud to serve the Local #1652, representing hundreds of workers from varying ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, who toil building high-rises, pipelines, water and sewage and other jobs.
Our latest project, of which we’re all so proud, is the PortMiami tunnel. Last year, I met President Obama when he toured the tunnel, which was made possible by Christopher Hodgkins and the Laborers’ International Union of North America. On that day, I thought of my father and how he would have loved to have met the president. As the workers gathered around President Obama, I had an opportunity to shake his hand.
At that moment, I felt as if I were representing my father and his work, and I’m certain my dad would have been as proud of me as I have always been of him.
Stanley Caleb, VP of Construction and Craft Workers Local #1652, Miami