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Published: Friday, 10/26/2001

Union leader was rights activist

James Hayes Watkins of the Old West End, a longtime union leader and civil rights advocate, died at home Monday of a heart attack. He was 61.

Known as “Big Jim,” Mr. Watkins was elected president of the United Auto Workers Local 1435 in 1971 and served as the local's international representative from 1973 until his death.

He helped negotiate contracts and was involved in handling grievances and arbitration issues at plants where employees were represented by the UAW throughout northwest Ohio, according to Jack Sizemore, retired regional director for the UAW.

“Jim was a big man with a big heart,” Mr. Sizemore said. “He was a very compassionate person - a hard-working, wonderful man.”

After graduating from Libbey High School in 1957, Mr. Watkins worked as a butcher and as a wholesale buyer for a retail store before joining the UAW at the Chrysler plant in Highland Park, Mich., in July, 1966. He transferred to the Chrysler's Toledo Machining Plant in Perrysburg Township in October, 1966, and was active in the union for 35 years.

“Jim was my mentor,” said John Rhodes, a longtime UAW official who met Mr. Watkins in 1968. “He inspired me to get involved in the local union.”

“He was active in the A. Phillip Randolph Institute and he was big in the civil rights movement,” Mr. Rhodes said.

Mr. Watkins volunteered to help the 1987 campaign of Mike Espy, the first black man elected to congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction. He also traveled to Louisiana twice to work against the political campaigns of David Duke, the former Klansman who ran for the offices of senator, governor, and president.

“He knew how to put things together,” Mr. Rhodes said. “He was the smartest person I ever met. He researched things. He loved to read. He was very articulate. If you did a project with him, you'd better be ready to work. He didn't leave any stone unturned. He wanted it just right.”

One of Mr. Watkins' favorite activities was helping friends negotiate a good deal on a car, Mr. Sizemore said. “He just loved to barter with them. He did it for me a few times.”

“He would do anything he could to help people, to better society, to benefit the working man,” Mr. Rhodes said. “All you had to do was ask him and he was there.”

He was a life member of the NAACP and was a member of Upton United Methodist Church.

In July, 1996, UAW Local 1435 honored Mr. Watkins by naming its union hall after him.

Surviving are his sons, James Derrick Watkins and Robert Shelven; mother, Augusta Watkins; sister, Mary Harris; brothers, Otis Watkins and Arvee Carter, Jr., and two grandchildren.

Wake services will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday at the James H. Watkins UAW 1435 Union Hall, 29781 Oregon Rd., Perrysburg Township. Funeral services will be at noon Monday at a site to be determined. The Dale Funeral Home is handling arrangements.

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