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The life and legacy of UAW-Ford Vice President Jimmy Settles

As Settles prepares to retire, he looks back on his accomplishments and moments of pride

It was an unlikely journey – and even at times a reluctant one – that led James “Jimmy” Settles Jr. from foundry worker to vice president at UAW-Ford.

But as Settles stumbled, walked and eventually ran in his father’s footsteps over his nearly 50-year career with Ford Motor Company, what kept him moving forward was improving the lives of the people he served.

“Especially now but even then, people would come up to me and thank me for saving their jobs or listening to them and caring about them,” he says.

That’s the “ultimate” reward, he has found.

“Helping people and making a difference in people’s lives to do some good has been a part of the way I work since I first started,” Settles says. “Those are the kind of things that I remember the most and I appreciate the most.”

Working in the foundry at the age of 18 – an experience he describes as “some of the hottest, dirtiest work” you could imagine – wasn’t anything Settles planned to do long-term. He started the very first day after his high school graduation and planned to quit after three months, when he’d be heading off to college and finding part-time work.

But his dad had other plans. “You gotta pay for your tuition, clothe and feed yourself,” he had told him. “I decided I’d better stay here at Ford.”

Three years later, he had another plan to quit – this time with his sights set on becoming a firefighter.

“I had passed the test for the city of Detroit,” he explains.

But a group of his fellow workers suggested he run for office.

“I ran and I won,” Settles recalls, with even people his senior voting him in. “It was a real honor to get elected, especially at a young age. For people to give me that vote of confidence was really a big thing.”

The rest, as it goes, is history. Settles advanced from one position to the next until he was elected vice president of the union. It’s an accomplishment he only wishes his dad could have witnessed.

“It feels very good, the family connection,” he says, adding that one of his sons now works as an engineer for Ford. “It meant a lot to me because that was the fourth generation.”

As he looks to his upcoming retirement in 2018 – he just marked his last Labor Day in his role – Settles says it’s a collection of big and small victories for his workers, supporting his community and hearing from those he’s helped along the way that have made his tenure a success.

“When I’m at the lowest – every day isn’t a good day – I sit back and read and just thank God for putting me in a position to help people like this. I try to stay humble. I just think, ‘Hey, that I’m living for something, for others.’ It’s a damn good feeling.”

Of all the UAW-Ford community initiatives Settles has been part of – from ramp-building efforts and Wounded Warriors Family Support programs to feeding the homeless and providing athletic and musical opportunities for youth – it’s hard for him to pinpoint what brings him the most pride.

“I’m proud of all of them,” he says. “We need to be as active in the community as we are in the workplace. I take that very seriously.”

But he has a special place in his heart for supporting Detroit and especially its schoolchildren.

“I do have a passion for the city of Detroit and public schools, because I’ve been in those schools, I’m a product of those schools, my kids are products of those schools,” Settles says.

When he sees the resources they have to work with, “I personally think it’s criminal. I am definitely committed to doing whatever I can do to make that better.”

While his plans for retirement are still up in the air – that is, beyond his established goal of improving his golf game – Settles knows he’ll continue to support his community.

“I want to be involved in some way,” he says.

Despite the gains made for workers rights during his union tenure, there’s still much work to be done, Settles acknowledges. Top among it includes parity of pay, increasing wages, shortening the workweek and giving people more time off to spend with their families. “I think people deserve more time off,” he says.

Beyond that, larger issues – those that extend beyond what can be done in contract negotiations – also loom, such as access to child care, education and health care. Many kids, he says, are “running uphill from the day they’re born because they don’t have the opportunity for education and clean facilities.

“They’re in overcrowded classrooms, they go to school but have no arts, no music, no nothing,” Settles says. Solutions are also needed for higher education. “College tuition is so high and people come out with so much debt.”

Ultimately, all of these issues affect workers, he says. “When people are feeling better outside of work, they feel better in work.”

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