As reported by Jessica Wehrman for Roll Call
Greg Regan took the helm of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department in the worst of circumstances but with the best possible preparation.
The circumstances: In the midst of a global pandemic that threatened his members’ jobs and lives, Regan’s boss and mentor, Larry Willis, died tragically in November after succumbing to injuries from a bike crash.
The preparation: Willis’s leadership and trust, which gave Regan and the team Willis had carefully put together the confidence to step up when the moment demanded it.
When the pandemic broke out, Regan, 37, was secretary-treasurer for the TTD, a coalition of 33 unions representing transportation workers. As a key policy staffer for the union, Regan, along with Willis, worked carefully to lobby for the March 2020 COVID-19 relief package that included paycheck protection for airline workers. He also fought for protective equipment and other provisions aimed at protecting a workforce that had no choice but to be public-facing.
“And then, right when it seemed like there was a light at the end of the tunnel with the Biden election, and the promise of new opportunities for us and a better working legislative environment, we were hit with this tragedy,” he said.
Willis, who was 53, was critically injured Nov. 21 when his bicycle collided with a motor vehicle near the MacArthur Boulevard entrance to Great Falls Park in Maryland. He died Nov. 29.
Unassuming and more of a wonk than a firebrand, Willis had by then been Regan’s mentor for 10 years. “He was hugely important for me,” Regan said, calling Willis “someone who just taught me so much about the labor movement and transportation policy.”
You could ask him anything, Regan said, and he’d have an answer. It was the ideal safety net. “He was always there,” he said, saying Willis could offer “a well of knowledge” to virtually any situation.
But he also gave his staff autonomy.
Regan came to TTD in 2011, but his first real legislative task was fighting for pro-labor provisions in the 2015 surface transportation law. “Larry basically gave me free rein,” he said.
One night, he got a call from a staffer on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to talk about the bill. At the time, Regan was in his neighbor’s front yard, the dogs were playing, and the adults were having a beer.
The staffer had an offer regarding Amtrak. “Can you live with that?” she asked, referring to a specific detail regarding contracts. Regan said yes and hung up the phone.
“And (I) immediately panicked, because I was like, ‘I don’t think I have the authority to approve that,’” he said.
Heart in his throat, he called Willis. “This is what I just said yes to,” Regan told his boss. “And he said, ‘Great. That’s what we can get? That’s great for unions. And that was it.”
That experience — and working for Willis — gave him a profound lesson in how to manage.
“If you’re going to hire somebody, trust them to do that job,” Regan said. “It’s empowering for people to have that feeling where not only are you allowed to go do what you need to do but that you have the backing and the trust of your boss to make sure that you’re empowered to go do that stuff.”
Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said Willis’s mentorship became evident during her first conversation with Regan after Willis died.
The two spoke about his death, grieving, and then, seamlessly, did what Willis would have wanted: talked about the next round of COVID relief.
The COVID-19 crisis
“I’ve been in situations where I don’t know what to do, where people who’ve left haven’t given clear instructions,” Nelson said. “Both of us agreed right in that moment that Larry had left us with very clear instructions.”
Willis, she said, “was a mentor who would anticipate what was going to be most helpful for the people he was mentoring.” Because of that, she said, the transition has been smooth.
In the immediate aftermath of Willis’s death, Regan and the staff at TTD were in the triage mode that many deal with after a tragedy: Answering calls, returning notes, and having different versions of the same, heartbreaking conversation over and over again. Add to that the isolation of COVID-19; the staff couldn’t even mourn together.
“It was all-consuming,” he said.
And then, as the shock wore off, there was a second realization: “We’re in a professional crisis.”
“How do we utilize the talent around us?” Regan asked himself. “How do we make sure that we’re living up to the standards that our unions expect of us, that Larry would have wanted from us, and how do we get the most out of everybody? And frankly, everybody stepped up.”
Piece by piece, he said, they began to catch their bearings. A key piece of the puzzle fell into place when Regan’s wife asked him who he viewed as a key partner in the wake of losing Willis. The answer was obvious: Shari Semelsberger, who had started at TTD in 1999 and worked her way up through the administrative side. In February, the union unanimously elected Regan president and Semelsberger secretary-treasurer.
Now, as Regan leads TTD, he is guided by lessons from Willis: Be a good diplomat. Listen to everyone’s perspective. Give your employees the freedom and authority to do their jobs well.
With vaccines going out and the pandemic subsiding, Regan and his team have a new focus: President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, a promising opportunity for a union that last year struggled with deep professional and personal loss.
“We have a president who has made it his number one priority to do infrastructure,” Regan said. “We have a need for economic stimulus, and transportation is a proven way to provide long-term economic stimulus while also providing investments into our country that will pay off in the future . . . We have a chance now to go big on some of these investments in transit and rail and highways and bridges and airports, in a way that we haven’t had.”