Convention Day 2: Youth, experience, action

WSLC spotlights young leaders, their mentors; then delegates hit the streets


SEATAC (July 27, 2019) — On day two of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO 2019 Convention, WSLC President Larry Brown put the spotlight on some of organized labor’s most dynamic young labor leaders, both here in Washington state and nationally.

Brown introduced delegates from unions across the state to his partner, WSLC Secretary Treasurer April Sims, the first woman of color and the first black person to be elected as a WSLC executive officer. She opened Friday’s session by telling her family’s story of confronting racism, poverty and homelessness before her mother got the lifeline that changed everything: a union job with good wages and benefits.

“My mom achieved the American dream because she had the opportunity to join a union,” Sims said. “The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.’ And for my family that was true — and it’s true for many other families.”

Following the convention theme — “Looking back. Moving forward.” — Sims honored past leaders who have fought and won groundbreaking gains for Washington workers, from our highest-in-the-nation indexed minimum wage, to paid sick leave for all, to the most comprehensive family leave policy in the nation. Meanwhile, despite judicial and political attempts to weaken labor, she pointed out that union membership continues to grow in Washington state, which now boasts the third highest rate of union membership in the country.

“We did this together,” Sims said. “We won these things together and secured victories for working families even while under attack from our enemies, the corporate CEO’s and the politicians who do their bidding. These constant attacks have galvanized our movement in Washington state. And we used it as an opportunity for us to rise together.”

More evidence of success from Washington’s union movement came in the form of the 2019 WSLC Convention video:


When Kooper Caraway was elected President of the Sioux Falls Central Labor Council at 27, he became the youngest CLC president in the nation. On Friday, he delivered an uplifting speech to WSLC delegates about the importance of guiding and promoting young leaders to strengthen unions.

“I would not be here without my mentors,” Caraway said. “They found me and showed me through their mentorship and their evidence that the labor movement is the only force, the only organization in this country and around the word that is both accessible to regular working-class people and has the power to provide the earth-shattering social change that workers desperately need… Young labor leaders do not fall from the sky or manifest out of nowhere. We are built up by the solidarity of our communities. We are strengthened by the mentorship of our elders. And when space is made for young workers to take leadership, we take it.”

After his speech, Caraway moderated an Intergenerational Communication panel that brought that point home. The panel included Maxwell Turner (pictured above), a Union Summer intern with the WSLC, who described why his passion for social justice has drawn him to the labor movement. And it also included Claude Burfect of the Washington Federation of State Employees/AFSCME, an elder with more than 50 years of experience as a labor and community leader. The reading of his lengthy resume alone earned Burfect a standing ovation from the hundreds of delegates in attendance. Also sharing their perspectives and knowledge as labor leaders were Shaunie Wheeler James of Teamsters Joint Council 28, Jon Holden of Machinists District Council 751, and Leanne Guier of UA Local 32 (and Mayor of Pacific, Wash.)

The common theme from Friday’s convention speakers was action. At a time when unions are under attack, a time when fundamental American ideals are jeopardized by immigrant bashing and other racist appeals intended to divide us, it’s more important than ever not only to stand up and be heard, but to fight back with real solidarity and action.

That’s exactly what happened at lunchtime, when delegates went to Renton to join hundreds of hospital workers rallying outside the Providence Health headquarters.

They joined their union brothers, sisters and siblings represented by SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, UFCW 21, OPEIU 8, and the Washington State Nurses Association for a massive show of unity as Providence continues to prioritize executive pay, profits and branding over the needs of patients and frontline workers. All job titles throughout the Providence system in Washington state — nurses, nursing assistants, techs, social workers, transporters, hospice workers, pharmacists, environmental services, nutrition workers, clerks and lab workers — were represented at the rally and were inspired by the dramatic show of solidarity from other union members and local political leaders.

Also on Friday at the WSLC 2019 Convention:

► A panel on the Future of Work discussed the challenges unions and their members are facings with new technologies that not only to replace workers, but undermine basic worker rights and protections for all. Powerful corporate interests are pushing policies that lock so-called “gig” workers assigned jobs via online platforms into independent contractor status, stripping them of the basic labor rights and allowing the companies to evade payroll taxes and worker lawsuits.

The panel featured Ali Anderson, State Legislative Director for the Teamsters union; Becky Smith, Director of Work Structures for the National Employment Law Project; and Chelsea Mason, Legislative and Political Director of the International Association of Machinists District 751.

► King County Executive Dow Constantine told delegates, “As an elected leader, it is my job sometimes to stand up front and lead. And it is also my job sometimes to stand shoulder to shoulder as workers united show the way forward.” He did just that when he joined the Providence rally where he delivered a strong message of support to the healthcare workers fighting for patient safety.

► State Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz thanked the assembled delegates not only for their service to their unions, but for the jobs they do: “You build our planes, our ships, our roads, our buildings. You fight our fires, you protect our communities, you care for our sick and elderly, and you teach our children. You act.”

► Friday evening at the convention banquet, the Mother Jones awards were presented to the organization(s) and individual that best exemplify the tradition of Mary “Mother” Jones’ immortal statement, “Mourn for the dead, but fight like hell for the living.”

The individual award went to Mike Elliott of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, a former BNSF employee who engaged in an 8-year struggle with that company to improve safety for train workers and the public. His efforts came at great personal cost as he was fired within weeks of reporting the safety violations and later was jailed on false assault charges. Eventually, Elliott was awarded a $1.2 million settlement as a whistleblower for calling out BNSF’s trouble-plagued train signals in Washington state.

The organizational award was presented to the Washington State Nurses Association, SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, and UFCW 21, the unions that have fought for 10 years, and in 2019 finally won, legislation to promote hospital patient safety by guaranteeing uninterrupted breaks for nurses and frontline healthcare workers in Washington state.

► WSLC President Larry Brown also presented his first Presidents Award to Frank Fennerty, a longtime labor leader and recent retiree from the Washington State Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals. He was hailed for his passion and effectiveness in advocating for workers who are injured on the job or suffer from occupational illnesses.

► In addition to musical entertainment by the Toucan Steel Drum Band, the banquet featured a spoken word performance by Christian Paige, a proud Tacoma native and educator. He delivered a moving and inspirational call to action for union leaders to get involved in their local schools to help lift up and empower young people, particularly students of color who have been dismissed and denied opportunities to succeed. He said these students need to see what can be accomplished so they can understand that they, too, are capable of making a difference in their communities. Learn more about Paige at his website and check out some of his poetry on YouTube.

The WSLC 2019 Convention concludes Saturday with the debate and passage of resolutions that will guide the WSLC’s policies and priorities in the coming year. Those resolutions, as approved, will be posted at the WSLC website next week.

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