June 23, 1917 June 2, 2006
Thomas (Tom) Martinez quietly passed away in the early morning hours of June 2 at the Birch Patrick Convalescent Hospital, in Chula Vista. Tom was 88 years old. While his passing may have been quiet, Tom’s life was anything but quiet. Tom was a man’s man. Tom lived his life to the fullest. Tom was a leader who made the life of those around him better. Tom lived a life that others aspired to.
Tom was born in National City, California, to Vidal Martinez and Isabelle Dominguez. Tom was one of eleven children, seven boys and four girls. Tom’s father returned to Mexico to fight against Pancho Villa, Tom never saw his father again. His mother re-married to Francisco Avila who moved the family to Richmond in northern California.
Francisco Avila was a good father and he instilled a strong work ethic in Tom. Like most poor families of the time the boys would have to work at an early age, Tom was no different. There were not many opportunities for a young Mexican boy in Richmond. One of the few opportunities for Tom was through boxing which, as it turned out, came naturally to Tom. Boxing was to shape his persona. Tom was the best when it came to boxing; he even trained with the great Max Baer. Boxing wasn’t the only sport in which he excelled at. In high school, at Richmond High, Tom was the star of the football team as a running back on the team. But Tom always said if you could box, wrestle and be the best at both, which Tom was, then you could consider yourself one tough guy. You could talk the talk and walk the walk which Tom did.
Tom left high school during the middle of his senior season. As a boxer, fighting three times a week he was making more money than his father at the time. At 18 with a buddy of his, Al Contreras, they went into the bar business opening the “El Dorado.” As Tom would described it, it was a good business staying open till midnight and then heading out to San Francisco which at that time was a wide open town, just the place for a young man with a couple of dollars in his pocket.
The “El Dorado” was situated next to the port in Richmond. The sailors would come into the bar with pockets full of money and stories of far away places; the adventurer in Tom was awakened. Tom sold his interest in the bar and went to work on the waterfront.
Tom saved his money and when he had a big enough bankroll he bought a Cadillac and headed to Mexico City. Tom fancied himself as a high roller, living in a fancy hotel in the center of the city. He soon became friends with the rich and famous, living the life of a playboy. Tom partied with ambassadors and hung out with movie stars. This lasted for a year until his money ran out, after which he headed to New York City.
Tom arrived in New York with $50 in his pocket. The first place he stopped at was a bar where he ran into an old friend. This old friend asked him if he was looking for work and got him a job on the SS Santa Rosa which set sail the next day. In 1947 Tom joined the National Maritime Union. Signing the pledge card set the course for the rest of Tom’s life, a course that would lead him to be one of the most influential labor leaders in the country.
Tom was a man of action. He quickly got involved with the Union, going to the monthly meetings and speaking his mind. His shipmates liked Tom and soon were looking to him for leadership. As he became more involved he saw politics as a way to create change which led him to establishing a political action committee. This political action committee set the blueprint of “pro-action” that the union was to follow. It was this type of action that caught the eye of the secretary-treasurer of the Union, John MacDougal. MacDougal encouraged Tom to run for office within the Union.
Tom was a Union man, always working for the Union but it would be ten years before Tom finally heeded the advice and would seek an office within the Union.
During the 1930s and early ‘40s Unions were in their infancy. The concept of unionizing and organizing was a concept that had to be defined and explained. Also at this time there was a problem with corruption in the Unions that had to be dealt with. These were the jobs that fell to Tom. Tom had earned his reputation as a man of action, someone who would not back down from anyone, a man who had a rapport with his men, a man who had a sharp mind, and a man that was very politically savvy.
In 1957 Tom was appointed as a field patrolman and was sent to the port in San Pedro, in Los Angeles County, as the agent in charge to resolve membership problems. From there he was sent to San Francisco to resolve the problems there. It was in San Francisco that Tom met his wife to be, Pearl Friedman.
On New Years Eve of 1962 Tom was sent to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he was put in charge of the Unions in the Caribbean and South America.
Tom was a fighter. He fought for his Union and its men. Tom knew what was important the men that worked the ships. No matter what time of the day or night it was, he would make it a point to meet the men as they came off the ship.
As Tom recalled one time: “The accomplishment that I am most proud of was to establish with the banks of the island, a method for our members to get loans to buy their homes. Seaman work for various companies, they don’t work steadily for one shipping company. They get on a ship and work steadily for one month, two, three, six months and they are done. And then they get another job. So they have no stable work history.
“I met with the officials of the various banks and explained how these men worked. These men make good money. So we made arrangements with these banks for the seamen to apply for a loan at a bank and the bank would send me the man’s application for me to sign. If I signed it he got the money. I don’t think there was one application that I didn’t sign.”
But it was in the arena of politics that Tom Martinez’ star shined the brightest. Tom’s political acumen was evident when he along with the agent representing the Seafarers Union created the Central Labor Council of Puerto Rico, of which Tom became the Secretary-Treasurer. The purpose of the labor council was to create a working atmosphere for all the unions on the island that had overlapping jurisdictions in organizing the workers. Tom’s main responsibility was in mediating the conflicts between these unions.
After four years in Puerto Rico, Tom was called back to the States where he was appointed the Regional Representative in Baltimore, in charge of the ports in that area, through the Caribbean and South America. In this position he was also in charge of the political action committee in Washington D.C.
In 1977 Tom Martinez was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the National Maritime Union, making him the most powerful Mexican-American Union representative ever elected.
“Our Union wasn’t the biggest Union around, other Unions were bigger. But as far as legislation and fighting for various laws, we were better than all of them,” Tom stated several years ago
After 46 years in the Union, Tom Martinez retired and with his wife Pearl Martinez returned to San Diego, to live in Jamul. He and his wife created the Tom and Pearl Martinez Foundation. Through this foundation they provide cash incentives to promising Hispanic sixth and fifth graders who attend inner city schools.
Eventually moving to Chula Vista, Tom and Pearl worked with the Foundation, supported the local LULAC Chapter, and stayed involved in politics.
Tom Martinez was a self-made man who was, in the strictest sense, a true leader from aiding and advising Cesar Chavez and his Union in the early days, to sitting down and talking legislation, one-on-one with the presidents of the United States. Not bad for a Mexican boy from National City who started out as a boxer.
Thomas Martinez is survived by his wife Pearl Martinez, his son Frank Martinez, granddaughters, Diana and Anita Martinez, and Veronika Munoz, and his great-grand children Annie Martinez, Mathias, Annemarie, and Genevieve Munoz.
As befitting a good Sailor, Tom Martinez was committed to the depths of the Sea .