|Mike LaHood when he played for the LA Rams.
From the football gridiron to Peoria Laborers Local 165 might be a long journey, but it’s the life circle of Mike LaHood, retired business manager of Local 165.
Mike grew up in Peoria, Illinois and eventually played professional football, before returning to work as a Laborer and eventually becoming an officer of his local union.
Born in Peoria, he grew up in a tight-knit Lebanese family of five children. While attending Spalding Institute he was a stand out on the football field, and also started working in the summer of 1963 as a Laborer. Mike worked every summer from his junior year in high school through college.
Those early days as a Laborer instilled respect for the craft into Mike. He remembers walking onto a job as a high school student and being asked immediately by an older Laborer, Charlie Keefer, “Where is your card?” Mike didn’t have his card with him and was told if he wanted to work tomorrow he had better have his card. The next day Mike brought his card in, and was then told by Charlie that Mike’s dues were behind, and if he wanted to work the next day he had better make sure his dues were paid up.
“This was a good wake-up call. Charlie told him, ‘This is my livelihood, so you have to be up to date on your dues.” “As a high school student lifting block,” Mike said, “you don’t appreciate it at the time, but those were great times and people.” Mike and Charlie became great friends until Charlie’s passing. “Although he was much older than I,” Mike stated, “I earned his respect, not an easy thing to do as a high school kid with those old-timers – and I respected him as well.”
Having lost only one game in his senior year, Mike won a scholarship to the University of Wyoming, where he completed a physical education degree and played as an offensive tackle. While finishing his career at the University of Wyoming, the Wyoming Cowboys played in both the Sun Bowl and the Sugar Bowl. Five senior teammates of Mike’s went on to play in the NFL.
Drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, Mike played on a few of George Allen’s teams. Mike remembers playing in a divisional championship game, after losing, thinking “we’ll be back next year,” but next year never came. Mike was drafted in 1968 and played only a partial season because of military duty. “A mature team,” is how Mike remembers the Rams, with older and seasoned players with few rookies.
In 1970 he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for one year, then back to the Rams for two more seasons. He completed his football career in 1973 in Vancouver, playing in the Canadian Football League. Mike noticed that the Canadian players were of high quality, but did not always have the size of NFL players.
“35 multi-millionaires” would be his teammates today, Mike said. Thanks to union organization through the Players’ Association, football players receive much better pensions and protection today. When he started, it took five years to vest for a pension and the average playing life in the NFL was 4.2 years. Thanks to the union the vesting period was lowered to four years and today it is a three-year requirement.
In 1976 Mike returned to Peoria and Local 165. As a student he had paid $2.50 in dues and made $3.60 an hour, with no benefits. In 1976 he returned to wages of $9 an hour plus a pension and health and welfare programs.
The 1980s recession brought work to a standstill. Mike went to Bloomington in 1985 to work on the Diamond Star auto factory (today Mitsubishi). “There were good people and workers in Bloomington,” he remembers.
In the mid-1980s he ran for union office, first becoming sergeant-at-arms. In 1989 he ran for President of Local 165, winning that office. One month into his term the local’s secretary-treasurer, Skeez Hasty retired, and so Mike became the secretary-treasurer. In 1992 Mike ran for business manager, a post he filled until his 2001 retirement.
Mike uses an athletic analogy to talk about a business manager’s job. “It’s like a hurdle race, one hurdle after another. You get over each one and there’s another one ahead.” At the same time, he appreciates what he was able to do for people as a union leader. “As a business agent, you get to help a lot of people and make a lot of friends. Sometimes you mix up the crews and that makes people better acquaintances, better union people.” Duane Demmin served as Secretary-Treasurer with Mike; the two had a great working relationship.
“Duane was the butcher,” Mike remembered. “He cut the fat out of everything possible, and as a result, the local was able to lower the check-off dues and still put money in the bank. Duane did a great job and it was a great feeling being able to help the members.”
Despite a current cancer battle and having survived a previous one, Mike is still active in the Laborers services as a retiree coordinator. He is proud that LiUNA retirees, if they keep their dues paid, have a free $2000 life insurance benefit, a drug card and access to other medical services. Mike keeps a sharp eye on the Laborers’ benefit package and is always looking for an affordable way to expand coverage for Laborers and their families.
Despite the medical challenges, Mike is active daily, keeping in touch with his local and with John Penn, Midwest Region Vice-President, someone he served with over the years and for whom he has a fond respect.
It’s a long way from the school yard at St. Patrick’s grade school in Peoria, Illinois, playing pick-up sports and ending up an NFL player. Even more rewarding is Mike’s real commitment to his fellow union members, trying to help insure a comfortable and secure life for those workers, a “record” that is hard to beat, no matter the playing field.