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05.03.19

IFPTE Mourns the Loss of Longtime Local 29 Member, Brother Walter Flournoy

IFPTE Mourns the Loss of Longtime Local 29 Member, Brother Walter Flournoy

Walter Flournoy, who passed away on April 20th, was one of the founding members of the Goddard Engineers, Scientists & Technicians Association (GESTA/IFPTE Local 29).

In a dedication to Brother Flournoy, Local 29 wrote that, “Walter's skill, experience, toughness, courage, and wisdom impressed those who knew him well and inspired those who worked with him.” It was also noted that, “Walter understood the critical importance of unions to workers.”

Brother Flournoy lived an incredible life. Among his many accomplishments were:

  • In 1957 he became the only African-American commanding officer of the 82nd Airborne Division;
  • He passed up a professional baseball career to go work at NASA in the late 1950’s as a Aerospace Technologist and mathematician;
  • He worked at NASA for 61 years;
  • He served as both Executive Vice President and President of GESTA/IFPTE Local 29; and
  • He was inducted into the West Virginia State College Hall of Fame.
The entire IFPTE family sends out our condolences to the Flournoy and GESTA/IFPTE Local 29 families. Read the Local's full dedication below, and Brother Flournoy’s obituary.

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The engineers, scientists, and technicians of NASA lost a great friend, a true champion, and a pioneer when Walter T. Flournoy passed away on April 20, 2019 at the age of 87.

Walter was one of the founding members of the Goddard Engineers, Scientists, and Technicians Association (GESTA/IFPTE Local 29) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). Walter was a GESTA officer and leader for most of the union’s history, serving as Executive Vice President and as President. Walter spent his life fighting injustice and helping people, and he achieved some incredible and notable victories. Walter's skill, experience, toughness, courage, and wisdom impressed those who knew him well and inspired those who worked with him. He understood the critical importance of unions to workers. Unfortunately, many people do not understand the importance of unions. Some people in this country are literally worked to death or have their lives destroyed by their jobs in workplaces that are essentially dictatorships. Unions are not important simply in the pursuit of justice in the workplace, but the work unions do can literally be a matter of life and death to their members. Dedicated hard-working men and women like Walter Flournoy are essential to unions.

Walter experienced terrible injustice from an early age as an African-American growing up in the segregated South. Walter graduated from West Virginia State College with honors with a degree in Mathematics and with minors in Physics and Biology. He was a star baseball player in college and the US Army, and he also played professional baseball. Walter was later inducted into his college's sports hall of fame. After graduating from college, he became an officer in the US Army's elite and extremely demanding 82nd Airborne Division, an incredible achievement for any man but especially for an African-American man facing the oppressive discrimination of the 1950s.

After being honorably discharged from the US Army, Walter became a Federal employee with the US Weather Bureau, now the National Weather Service. In 1961, he began work at NASA GSFC as a machine programming mathematician in the Advanced Orbital Programming Branch, where he was among the first NASA employees to work with computers as a member of the real-time computer operations team for Project Mercury, our nation’s first human space flight program which ultimately launched the first Americans into Earth orbit. In his long NASA GSFC career, Walter contributed to many more NASA missions while working in a number of NASA GSFC organizations and in NASA GSFC technical management. Over his long career at NASA, he received numerous awards including the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and the National Society of Black Engineers Trailblazer Award.

But it is the work Walter did to ensure the fair and equal treatment of all of NASA's employees that he will perhaps be best remembered for. In 1973 he led a group of African-American employees in establishing the Goddard Equal Employment Opportunity Office. He also co-led the effort to create the NASA Learning Center, a valuable resource for employees. He filed an administrative class action lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging a long history of racial discrimination against African-American employees.

In the landmark Flournoy vs O'Keefe lawsuit settlement, the long history of racial discrimination against African-American employees was addressed. The investigation that Walter's lawsuit initiated also found systematic problems with the promotion process which impacted all engineers, scientists, and technicians, including a subjective buddy system and unwarranted restrictions on the number of promotions in cases. Those systematic issues with the promotion process were also addressed as part of the lawsuit settlement to the benefit of all NASA GSFC engineers, scientists, and technicians. Walter's lawsuit resulted in the promotion of many engineers and scientists, both African-Americans and non-African-Americans, and Walter was very proud of this.

GESTA, under the leadership of Walter and Anel Flores, GESTA's current president, working closely with the other NASA unions and the IFPTE, led the effort to overturn the terrible NASA term hiring policy implemented by former President George W. Bush and former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. That NASA term hiring policy, part of Bush's assault on Federal employees, had subjected all NASA engineers, scientists, and technicians to unnecessary uncertainty and stress. As a GESTA leader, Walter played a key role in ensuring that some of the worst managers at GSFC were dealt with, to the benefit of their employees. Those bad managers, though small in number, could have a major negative impact on their employees. Walter's landmark promotion lawsuit victory in the Flournoy vs O'Keefe settlement was a major factor in later getting GESTA a seat at the table with NASA GSFC management in negotiation of a modified promotion process. Walter worked very hard and very effectively in those negotiations. He made it clear from the first meeting that GESTA was there to negotiate not to be a rubber stamp, and his work on the appeals process was especially critical.

Losing a man like Walter Flournoy is hard at any time, but especially in these times. Walter's victories over former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe which benefitted all of NASA's engineers, scientists, and technicians are particularly notable now. We should remember men like Walter Flournoy as we confront the injustices of our times.

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