This is a profile of my late grandfather, Michael Botelho.
It’s 1979. The sun shines down on the towering white columns of the Springfield City Hall, the cool air of a New England autumn softly blowing the newly fallen leaves underfoot. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 93 Field Director stands on the hall’s steps before a bustling crowd of 500 unsatisfied Massachusetts union members. His mission: to get Springfield officials to acknowledge and act on the union’s demands of higher wages. His gray hair is meticulously coifed, matching with his similarly colored pinstripe suit. Despite his failing health, he still manages to project his deep, gravelly voice to all members of the rally. “The city of Springfield has not been dealing realistically with the demands you have put on the table,” he shouts, the rings on his fingers catching the light as his hands enthusiastically express the true anger he feels. “We are not going to settle for one cent less than any other group has settled for this year.” The crowd roars with approval, raising their fists towards the 66 year old man in whose hands their future success rests.
That man is my grandfather, Michael Botelho. Throughout my short life of 20 years, I have heard story after story of what a great influential he was. Unfortunately, diabetes took his life in 1986; I never had the chance to meet him. The recent assignment in a college class, however, has given me that chance. Surrounded by binders filled with newspaper clippings, letters from mayors, and stirring photographs, I began the journey into the life of a man who I only knew through such material things, in hopes that by the end I would finally have the full picture.
My grandfather always felt connected to the union. He was born in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1914, and started working in the textile mills at a very young age. When the union came to his own mill, it was an eye-opening experience for him. He joined the United Textile Workers in 1933, and the rest, quite literally, is history. That seemingly small action marked the beginning of a 52 year long career, during which my grandfather dedicated himself completely to fighting tooth and nail for the rights of union workers.
Apart from his three year service in the navy, my grandfather lived and breathed union organization. “Most people go to work and it’s just a job,” says his wife Beatrice. “But for him, he loved it.” After coming home in 1945, he got right back to work for the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA). He stayed with the TWUA for 21 years. His job took him all over the country, from the New England states all the way down to Georgia. “When we went to north Georgia, we knew what was at stake,” says his son Paul Botelho, who is one of 11 children. “They were trying to organize the mills, they would be going on strike and we would have to try to figure out ways to help them.”
After his long service for the TWUA, he moved permanently to Massachusetts to work for AFSCME. “AFSCME sort of coveted him,” says Anthony Caso, Executive Director of AFSCME Council 93 and a friend of my grandfather’s. “They wanted him because they knew of his reputation.” There, he made sure the voices of nearly 56,000 members, mostly corrections employees, were heard and heeded. “He was the motivator,” says Caso. He was living the dream, providing those he represented with what he had always longed for before the days of the union. “The labor movement was his lifelong passion,” says Paul. “It was what he believed in, and very few people get to live out what drives them. That’s what he did. That’s what was most impressive.”
My grandfather fought for his union brothers and sisters until he literally could not. His death was a monumental loss to everyone that knew him, especially the members of the unions he represented. “Never have I seen that Holy Family church so full,” my nana says, remembering his funeral. Contained in the binders she lent me are dozens of letters she received from senators, mayors, governors, and other businessmen lamenting the loss of such an influential man. “Mike’s many years of hard work on behalf of others continue to benefit the citizens of our Commonwealth and serve as an impressive legacy of his skills and dedication,” writes then governor of Massachusetts Mike Dukakis. He was a figure that the union would certainly miss.
Though my grandfather rarely spoke about his job and was almost never home, his family knew the importance of what he was doing. “He was not the kind of dad that went places with you and taught you how to do things,” says Paul, “but we respected him because we knew what he meant to the lives of the people he knew and worked for.” Indeed, my grandfather’s impact is still felt today. “He really cared what happened to the workers, like he cared for his family. He was committed, but he really cared,” says Caso, “and you don’t find many people today that feel that way.” AFSCME’s Massachusetts chapter offers Botelho scholarships and awards, and still holds an annual Botelho Golf Tournament to remind the current members that “he was such a motivating factor in the beginning,” says Caso.
My grandfather was a man I wish with all my heart I could have met. Behind the pictures of him with John F. Kennedy, the bronze busts, the shiny plaques and the paintings, there is a man that had more of an impact on the union than I have ever fully understood. In the words of my nana, “He was truly exceptional.” He was a force to be reckoned with, “powerful, passionate, and devoted” to his cause. As my grandfather once said, “With all its imperfections, the labor movement stands like a block of granite.” He has followed suit. Resilient and strong-willed, his legacy will surely withstand the test of time.