1 What's your own union history and how did you become involved in leadership?
After about three years on the job with the City of Fort Wayne Street Department, one of my co-workers got called to the office and our shop steward was out sick. He asked me to come with him so there would be a witness. It was shocking to me how he was talked to without a union rep present. It changed something in me. Soon after, I became assistant steward and within six months I was voted in as head steward. My passion for the union only grew from there. By the mid '90s I was voted in as the business manager of (International Union of Operating Engineers) Local 19.
I started to recognize that small locals such as ours were disappearing, so in 1999 our 220-member unit voted to join IUOE Local 399. They were out of Chicago and had 10,000 members. The new union sent out a request to every single person to find a business rep for Indiana. No one wanted the job. The next thing I know, I'm sitting in an office in Chicago and in June of 2000 I took the job.
It was my job to go to the meetings of the AFL-CIO, so I did as often as I could. Over time, more and more folks just stopped attending the meetings. After right to work passed in 2012, it became clear to many of us what a mistake it was not to have supported the AFL-CIO more, and I had to own my part in that. When the national AFL-CIO announced their plan in 2016 to restructure the struggling local central labor councils across the state into three stronger area labor federations, I was determined to do whatever I could to help them to succeed.
When my union siblings asked me to serve as president of the northeast chapter and later the president of the Hoosier Heartland Area Labor Federation, I couldn't say no. We have an incredible team and the work we have done together in these last five years has been amazing.
2 What's the biggest misconception about organized labor?
There is a one-sentence answer that has two effects. Unions had a place and are no longer needed. To many, this has led to a simple passive lack of knowledge. To others, this is a deliberate tool used to make people believe that all unions do is protect the jobs of people who don't deserve it.
Although, I think the pandemic has opened the eyes of many to what it means to work in this country. Workers are starting to recognize their value. From those who stock supermarket shelves to doctors and nurses treating the sick. All work is essential, and folks need to feel safe and be treated with respect on the job. That is what unions do. We work to negotiate a fair rate of return on our work, and that includes healthy, safe work environments for our members.
3 What should people know about today's unions?
Our commitment to equality on the job has never wavered. Even today, a union contract is the only thing that helps LGBT members from losing their jobs or being harassed because of their orientation. But, back in the day, we struggled with inclusion and that has played into some bad stereotypes.
Gone are the days of a bunch of guys sitting around banging their fists on podiums, telling a bunch of other guys how to vote. We want and need the input of everyone from everywhere. We encourage our young members to bring new ideas the table; we need the perspectives of our Black and brown siblings; and with the election of Liz Shuler as the first female president of the national AFL-CIO, who is being joined by Fred Redmond, a long-time labor and civil rights leader as secretary-treasurer, we have the most diverse leadership team in our history.
4 What opportunities for organized labor do you see in the massive infusion of federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act and the infrastructure bill?
First, we are grateful for the American Rescue Plan because we had many union locals that were devastated by the closures that took place such as those in the hospitality industry.
The infrastructure bill will mean steady work for many, especially our siblings in the building trades. But I think it's important to point out that the infrastructure bill is only one piece of the current administration's overall American Jobs Plan. Another piece is the Pro-Act, or the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. The Pro-Act is a once-in-a-generation piece of legislation that will strengthen our out-of-date labor laws, provide better protections for those who want to form a union, and outlaw right-to-work laws at the federal level, which have led to the slow but steady disappearance of the middle class.
5 Are you optimistic for the future of organized labor?
Without a doubt. Over the last six years, we have seen a transformation of the AFL-CIO in northeast Indiana and across the state, really. Locally, we have added an additional 20 new affiliated local unions and strengthened our relationship with the United Way of Allen County and other nonprofit organizations.
In addition, we have worked with Mayor (Tom) Henry to create the Mayor's Labor Roundtable, which has led to organized labor leaders sitting on more pivotal boards and commissions. In 2019, we ran the first-of-its-kind Member-to-Member Political Education Program, leading to adding two additional labor-friendly councilpeople to the Fort Wayne City Council.
Our vison was simple; Organize the organized (bring more local unions to the table), work to improve our public image and build political strength for working people. We have been able to expand our reach throughout the northeast Indiana area and across the Hoosier Heartland Area Labor Federation's 27-county region.