SEATAC, Wash. (July 24, 2023) — The 2023 Convention of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO last week featured inspiring addresses from labor leaders, thought-provoking panels and workshops, multiple elected officials thanking unions for their work and support, and resolutions setting the council’s priorities moving forward. The underlying message for all of it was that we can overcome the problems and injustices of today by joining together in solidarity to demand better.
In her first convention since being elected WSLC President, April Sims opened the event Tuesday with a stirring reminder of why the hundreds of delegates from across the state had gathered at the DoubleTree Hotel by Hilton in SeaTac.
“After the deep isolation of the past few years, folks are craving connection and community,” Sims said. “Our eyes are open to the vast system of economic exploitation under which we labor, where the profits we produce are taken from the worker’s hand and deposited in the boss’s pocket… In this moment, channeling the fear of uncertainty and the pain of isolation into connection, comradery, and collective action is a truly radical act. And that’s why we are all here today. Because that’s what we do in in the labor movement. Find our connection to each other, to our shared struggle and to our shared vision for a better future.”
Sims is the first woman to be elected WSLC president and the first Black woman elected to the presidency of an AFL-CIO state federation. Together, she and Secretary Treasurer Cherika Carter are the first leadership team of Black women to lead an AFL-CIO state federation.
Carter, who opened Wednesday’s session, echoed Sims’ message about unions’ strength being in their solidarity.
“No matter the job, we know there is dignity in all work,” Carter said. “That is solidarity. That is radical love. In our commitment to each other, and our demand for a voice on the job – we win. That is where our power lies.”
AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler could not attend the convention because the AFL-CIO Executive Council was meeting in the other Washington, but she sent a video message thanking delegates for attending the convention. She reminded them that “our power as a federation comes from you, our energy comes from your hard work on the ground, and our plans for the future are only possible because of you.”
The convention also featured the presidents of two other unions, both relatively small but both attracting national attention for their organizing wins and their legal/contract victories for workers.
Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers, was escorted to the podium by a contingent of mushroom workers from Ostrom/Windmill Farms who are fighting in Washington state for union recognition and a contract. She explained the struggles these workers have faced and highlighted the $3.4 million legal settlement the workers won because of the company’s systemic gender discrimination and illegal firings.
“These workers are worth fighting for,” said Romero, the first Latina and first immigrant woman to become president of a national union in the United States. “They may not have a contract yet — but they are organized, they are militant, and they aren’t giving up.”
“I spent over 300 days at that bus stop across the street… talking to workers, earning their trust, building relationships,” Smalls said. “So understand we did it unprecedented, we did it differently, but most importantly, we did it our way.”
For the full story of that effort, Smalls urged delegates to watch the new movie Americonned, which was screened at the convention but is now streaming and available for rent or purchase on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, and Google Play.
Americonned director Sean Claffey also addressed the convention. He told delegates he didn’t set out to make a film about unions, but as he documented the struggles of low-income and working class Americans, he soon realized that unions are the only answer to this country’s increasing economic and social inequalities. He challenged delegates to rise to that task.
“We stand in the shoulders of giants, so let’s become giants,” he said.
Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy described the Texas Climate Jobs Project, a worker-centered coalition of unions demanding climate action in ways that create quality jobs that sustain our families and communities.
“We are not fighting for pipelines,” Levy said. “We are creating pipelines for Union jobs.”
After addressing delegates, Levy joined a Climate Jobs panel moderated by Katie Garrow, a WSLC Vice President and Executive Secretary of MLK Labor, The panel also included Port of Seattle Commissioner Toshiko Hasegawa, Melissa Wells of North America’s Building Trades Unions, and Ron Ruggiero of the Climate Jobs National Resource Center.
A second panel focused on organizing and growing unions featured Elizabeth Strater of the UFW, Eden Redmond of WFSE/AFSCME, Monica Morales of Teamsters Local 117, Liz Duran of Starbucks Workers United, and Luci Baker of UAW Local 4121. Many of the panelists also participated in afternoon workshops on the issues, plus everything from Digital Organizing, to Removing Language Barriers, to Advocating for Child Care.
Among the elected officials who addressed delegates at the WSLC 2023 Convention were two candidates campaigning for governor in 2024: state Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz and Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Franz revealed a personal story about being kidnapped as a child, an experience that she said shapes who she is and why she wants to be governor. Ferguson told delegates that he transformed the AG’s office from a “sleepy Olympia law firm” into “one of the strongest forces for economic and social justice” in the state and nation, and would continue that working families-centered approach as governor.
Delegates also heard from former U.S. Attorney Nick Brown and state Sen. Manka Dhingra, who are seeking to replace Ferguson as AG.
Former WSLC Political Director and current Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda received a hero’s welcome in her return to the WSLC Convention.
“In this moment, when we see the widest income inequality since the Gilded Age, we must organize, stand up, and fight back,” said Mosqueda, who is now running for King County Council. “We have shown the nation that when we act locally, we make waves nationally.”
The WSLC also presented its annual awards for exemplary service and advocacy for individual union members and organizations:
The Mother Jones Award has been recognized for decades as the state labor movement’s award that recognizes our own members in their struggle for dignity and respect for all working men and women in our state. Traditionally, two awards are given, one to an individual and one to an organization. Candidates for the award will best exemplify the tradition of Mary “Mother” Jones’ immortal statement, “Mourn for the dead, but fight like hell for the living!”
This year, the individual Mother Jones Award was given posthumously to Shahraim Allen (1975-2019) of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) Division 238 in Tacoma who was hailed as “a trailblazer, leader, and a warrior for working-class people in every sense.” His award was accepted by his mother, Jenny Allen.
The organizational Mother Jones Award went to the Public Employees Benefits Board Stakeholders’ Medicaid Coalition for their advocacy protecting the healthcare benefits of public sector retirees. The coalition includes the Retired Public Employees Council of Washington, Washington Education Association-Retired, AFT Washington Retiree Chapter, Washington State Alliance for Retired Americans, Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action, and the Washington Federation of State Employees. Non-labor affiliated members include Social Security Works, Healthcare Is a Human Right, and the Washington Senior Citizens Lobby.
The Elsie Schrader Award is presented each year by the WSLC Women’s Committee for the advancement of women in leadership roles and/or for activism on behalf of women within the labor movement. In 2023, the award was presented to Charlotte Murry, Secretary-Treasurer of the Snohomish and Island County Labor Council.
The Bruce Brennan Award goes to the individual who has contributed the most to further the cause of apprenticeship, education and training in Washington state. This year’s winner was presented to Luis Licea of the Northwest Laborers-Employers Training Trust (NWLETT). Luis couldn’t attend the convention so the award was announced via Zoom and shared with delegates.
The President’s Award was presented by WSLC President April Sims to state Rep. Sharlett Mena (D-Tacoma) for her sponsorship of and advocacy for HB 1533, which protects public employees who are survivors (or have dependents who are survivors) of domestic violence, stalking, harassment, or sexual assault from having their personal identifiable information or location disclosed.
“While this sounds like a no brainer, this was one of the toughest fights we had this year,” Mena wrote after receiving the award. “But opposition was no match for our collective strength. Thanks to people with lived experience who bravely told their stories, union reps who worked around the clock to build support, and colleagues who stood with us until the last bipartisan vote.”
WSLC delegates at the convention also debated and approved 26 resolutions that will guide the WSLC’s policies and priorities in the coming year.
Here is the 2023 WSLC Victories Video that showed some of the key organizing and contract wins over the past year: