Retiring WSLC President Larry Brown: Thank you to all who have supported our efforts to build power for Washington’s working people
By LARRY BROWN
(Jan. 4, 2023) — This is my final week as President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. As our state’s labor movement begins what I expect will be another year of growth and success, I wanted to remind all of us what we have accomplished together in the past four years and to thank the many union leaders, staffers and rank-and-file activists who’ve made my term such an incredibly positive and humbling experience.
The COVID pandemic, which began in early 2020, has defined our recent years and my tenure at the WSLC more than anything else. The dedication and perseverance that frontline workers demonstrated during early lockdowns and the subsequent spread of powerful variants are what maintained essential public services and kept our state and nation running. Working people made incredible sacrifices and continually exposed themselves to the virus to serve the rest of us. And too many — from healthcare workers to bus drivers, from first responders to agriculture workers, from grocery store clerks to building trades workers — paid the ultimate sacrifice.
But in times of crisis, the labor movement has always risen to the occasion, and this pandemic was no exception. Unions demanded that frontline workers get the proper Personal Protective Equipment to guard against infection. Our safety-and-health advocacy on behalf of our members literally saved lives. When the COVID vaccine became available, the WSLC and other unions launched an unprecedented campaign to educate our members and urge vaccinations, particularly among populations that struggle to access healthcare services.
Importantly, these three years of pandemic have spurred an overdue reckoning among America’s employers, particularly those that offer low pay and few benefits, as workers reevaluated their jobs and circumstances. Many left these low-road jobs. And many others have turned to unions and are joining together to demand better wages and working conditions. That’s why the WSLC’s focus in 2022 was to help our affiliated unions meet the moment by organizing more workers, negotiating better contracts, and striking when necessary. Here in Washington, union membership is on the rise. There are now an estimated 629,000 union members in Washington, making us the third most unionized state in the nation behind only Hawaii and New York.
I won’t try to itemize all of the work the WSLC has accomplished in the past four years — see our recent summary report to the WSLC Executive Board for details — but I’m particularly proud that while we supported many organizing and contract wins, we continued and expanded upon the groundbreaking work the WSLC is doing to address racism and raise awareness within the union movement about the need for diversity and inclusion. Our Race and Labor work, and our efforts to fight for immigrant rights, have made the WSLC a model for other AFL-CIO state federations.
I’m also particularly proud of the WSLC’s Workforce Development Department, which has become more engaged in grant-writing, fundraising and supporting workforce training in our state. The work that this team in Olympia does to serve our members who have lost their jobs — and our future members — is unheralded but absolutely essential.
The WSLC’s legislative focus has been on building out economic opportunity and I’m very proud of our role in helping advance Washington workers’ rights in recent years. We have also helped set the state on a path to cleaner and greener energy while insisting upon strong labor standards as we create these new clean energy jobs.
All of this work during my term as President was made possible thanks to the amazing partnership I had with my co-conspirator, WSLC Secretary Treasurer April Sims. She has been one of the most inspiring labor leaders I’ve ever known and it has been a true honor and pleasure to work alongside her to build power for Washington’s working families. As I retire, it gives me great comfort to know that the WSLC’s important work in these areas will continue and expand under her leadership as WSLC President and that of incoming Secretary Treasurer Cherika Carter.
I want to thank April and Cherika — and the rest of the talented, dedicated WSLC staff — for their support and guidance. Washington’s union movement benefits greatly from the innovative work done by the WSLC’s legislative, political, communications, organizing, workforce development, and Project Help staff. In particular, I will be forever grateful to my Executive Assistant Willa Kamakahi for keeping me organized and on task.
I also want to give special thanks to the labor leaders who have served on the WSLC’s Executive Board these past four years. These Vice Presidents are incredibly busy as leaders within their own unions, and the fact that they step up to lend their time, energy, ideas, and passion to guide the WSLC is a big reason why this state federation is so successful.
I’m grateful that, in my final year as President, the WSLC was able to return to in-person conventions and events under strict COVID testing, masking, and safety protocols. Although it was amazing what we have been able to accomplish together working remotely, I sorely missed physically gathering together to learn from each other, celebrate our victories, and inspire new activism.
This has been the honor of my lifetime to serve Washington’s working people as President of this great council. Thank you for giving me this opportunity and for everything you’ve done to support the WSLC’s critical work improving the lives of Washington’s working families. Together, we have fulfilled my most fundamental wish for my term in this office: to hand off an even stronger Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO to the next generation of labor leaders.
Larry Brown is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.