An unlikely labor leader
When, in March 2005, a vote of the executive board of SEIU Local 26 made me the president of this union, not two years had passed since I’d left a prior career as an adjunct college instructor trying to finish a Ph.D. while teaching Latin American history and comparative colonial cultures. In 2002, the death of Paul Wellstone — who had left his academic career to become an activist and politician — had left me feeling first dejected, then determined, to do something else, though I wasn’t sure what.
I left academia, became immersed in Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and then in a St. Paul city council race, both of which made me think that maybe my lifetime as a political news junkie could be put to good use. At the end of 2003, I was hired by SEIU in Minnesota hired me as a political organizer and, six months into what I thought was a first job in politics, I was startled to be asked instead to become the president of one of the union’s local’s in Minnesota.
Back then, the local was made up of 4,000 janitors and other service workers and flew enough under the radar that I heard more than once, “I didn’t even know the janitors had a union” from others in the building where local officed. The president at the time, a kind and stoic German-Minnesotan, was looking to retire after leading a local whose demographics had dramatically shifted during his tenure. The union’s members had become more than 90% people of color: the largest group by far were recent immigrants from Latin America, with a growing number of East African refugees. The outgoing leader had not built leadership behind him from either the membership or staff of the union, and I had heard the national union was looking for someone from another state to possibly come lead the local.
Not only did I know nothing about leading a labor union, it didn’t seem right to me to lead a local where I hadn’t been a rank-and-file member. A labor-historian friend reframed that concern for me: “The choice isn’t between you and a rank-and-file member: an outsider will lead the union. Think about what kind of union you would build so that when you leave, they’re not faced with the same problem.” That advice always served as a north star to me.
Just this past month, exactly fourteen years since the day the union’s board first put its trust in me (with a few members back then noticeably skeptical of my credentials), the union’s elected leaders approved a leadership transition that I am proud of, that we can all be proud of, one worthy of my former colleague’s advice. I love this union, and working alongside and for our members will always be the greatest honor of my life. But all organizations must change as the world around us changes. And today we have an amazing group of leaders ready to step up and lead. Theirs is the energy and creativity that will lead the union in the next phase of its work.”
This coming June, after an almost year-long process with our member governing board, I will be handing over the leadership of the union to a team that represents the broad diversity of our union, which is now double the size we were in 2005. I’m very happy that Local 26’s new president, approved by the board to serve the rest of my term before standing for election next year, will be Iris Altamirano, a Chicana/Latina and fighter who has worked in departments across our union. Iris’s life work has been guided by the values instilled in her by her mother, who raised her on the salary of a janitor by working in the elementary and high schools that Iris attended in Texas before going on to college at Cornell University. She will be supported by our longtime staff director, who for years has worked with me to build this organization. The leadership team includes Directors of Internal Organizing and Member Resources who are both former rank and file members, as are the leads in our airport and security. This team of eight has six women and six people of color, a majority of whom are from the rank and file.
I’ve spent the last year leading the transition to new leadership because it’s time. It’s time for two reasons.
First, because 14 years is a long time for anyone to be in the same leadership position and for any organization to not bring in new energy. There are many reasons for the decline of labor unions in this country, many of them external, but it is also undoubtedly true that we are not a movement known for encouraging new leaders with different ideas to step up. I knew when I won my last election a little over year ago, just as i knew when I led our last contract campaign through a metro-wide janitors’ strike and security officers’ winning a contract that built on the successes of two prior strikes, that this election and those contract campaigns would both be my last. I knew I wanted to hand over leadership at a time of strength and growth for the union, not a time of retrenchment and crisis. I did not know exactly when I would hand over the leadership, or to whom, or exactly how. That we have figured out since this past fall.
Second, it’s time because the Board and I want to allow time for Iris and the leadership team to build the next great Local 26 campaigns as we members head into negotiations for new, multi-year contracts across all sectors beginning at the end of this year. We have an amazing team that we built after years of investing in training and hard work. Today, we are unique among similar locals; more than half ouf staff come from the rank and file, and more thanthree-quarters come from the communities our members come from.
I leave Local 26 exceedingly proud of the gains we have made in this otherwise hostile environment for unions and during years of steep decline in union membership nationally. We grew by organizing in sectors many think of as un-organizable: subcontracted, temporary, low-wage industries with contingent workforces that makes up more and more of Minnesota’s and America’s economies. And we did that by organizing from the ground up, by centering the lives and stories of a growing multiracial working class in Minnesota.
We also won big contract campaigns with big improvements in pay, benefits, and working conditions for our members. In 2005, most commercial officer janitors worked part time and before joining the union private security officers earned barely above the minimum wage. Today, most of our members work full-time, with benefits packages that include healthcare, paid vacation days, paid sick days and more.
How we won them is just as important as what we won. I had never organized a protest before coming to the union, but I read up on the Justice for Janitors movement, and learned quickly that our job in the low-wage sector is to make work that is often invisible to other societal silos visible. The office worker who microwaves popcorn at three in the afternoon might not know who makes sure the carpet in her cubicle is spotless by the next morning; the security officer who does their rounds overnight often work alone. So we set about to make the invisible visible, and to make sure we were heard, too.
Our thousands of members work almost exclusively in the subcontracted industry. Building owners hire contract companies to clean their offices, who in turn are the direct employers of janitors. That means that when we sit at the bargaining table from security or janitorial companies, we know we are not sitting across from the real power brokers, the clients who sign the checks. And so during the first contract negotiations I led, I called and wrote to the Building Owners Managers Association, asking them to allow us to present to them the issues we were tackling at the bargaining table. When our request was turned down, we weren’t surprised — this is, after all, the point of subcontracting, to create distance between the numbers in a company’s budget spreadsheets and the people who are doing the work. “They’re not our employees,” is a refrain you get used to hearing. But we asked again. And then again.
Frustrated at their refusal to meet to hear us out, we staged a protest at the Golden Valley Country Club as building owners and managers held a breakfast to make sure they heard and saw our request for a meeting. They weren’t happy with us then and, over the years, they never stopped complaining about that protest. In a meeting with a Minneapolis business leader just a few years ago, he again brought it up to me, this protest that had happened a decade before. I gave him my by then well-rehearsed response. “Back then, you wouldn’t take a meeting with us. Now,” I said, pointing to the downtown office he had received me in, “You do.”
We raised standards and grew our membership by working differently and powerfully with community organizations, partnering new forms of worker organization like worker centers, and through public campaigns that brought the stories of low-wage workers to the broader community and the community into our bargaining tables. We helped build Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, a labor and community alignment that took on corporate power, expanding the concept of collective bargaining beyond our contracts in order to push for bigger, transformational change in our cities and state. MFE also led the charge to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would have restricted access to voting, a campaign that the smartest progressive minds told us could not be won.
But back in 2005, our first task was to build trust with and engagement from members who, in many cases, only knew the union from the dues deductions on their paychecks. We adopted a new constitution that unlike before, ensured that at most two officers of the union could be full-time staff members. Back then, the board of the union was made up almost entirely from a very small bargaining unit that also happened to be all white. Board meetings happened the first Monday of every month, with a general membership meeting following right after, at 5:30 p.m. — precisely the time the vast majority of members, janitors who work second shift, are clocking in to go to work. We changed all of that: our bylaws now require representation across different sectors and bargaining units and today is made up of leaders who have worked together through years of growth, through strikes and policy fights. We hold membership meetings on Saturdays — with food and child care, because the meetings go as long as the members want them to. We also recruited large bargaining committees for our contract campaigns. We sometimes had to fight across negotiating table with our employers’ lawyers when they would get annoyed that the pace of negotiations had slowed down because we simultaneously translated everything into Spanish, Somali, and Amharic.
During contract negotiations my body would often choose to concentrate all its stress in one area: my neck. One year, during a break from a late night bargaining session, I left our team to go off to a room to put my neck in traction. While I was away, Cynthia, a member on leave from her job to work on the campaign, and today the union’s Director of Internal Organizing, got our committee to call their coworkers after midnight, as they were ending their cleaning shifts, to urge them to come to the hotel where we were bargaining. By the time I returned to the room, our already large bargaining committee of about 30 had become a massive gathering of about 200. It was loud and raucus. A song in Spanish sung by one group of Latinos led by a guitar player was answered by an improvised song in Somali from a small group of women. By the time we resumed bargaining, it was close to 3:00 a.m. When employer committee walked into the room that now bursting at the seams with people who hadn’t been there before the break, they were so spooked, they looked like they were seeing ghosts. (Or maybe it was just the tiredness brought on by the late hour.) Our committee, however, was fresh and ready to continue, their faces saying, “We work at night — we’re good!” These were moments of pure joy even before the following afternoon, when we settled a great contract after the marathon bargaining session.
And there were moments of intense pain: stepping outside of a hearing at the Capitol to take a call, letting me know that Fidel, a Dominican immigrant who had only recently become a union window cleaner, died on the job in downtown Minneapolis. And the realities of our cruel immigration system became agonizingly manifest when, in 20009, an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “I-9 audit,” resulted in over 1200 members losing their jobs.
This was the Obama administration’s supposedly kinder, gentler version of immigration enforcement. They did away with the military workplace raids but replaced them with these silent, desktop raids that didn’t send people into deportation proceedings but did send them into a different kind of hell. As sociologist Jeffrey Kaye documents in a study he did in the aftermath of our I-9 audit, workers with their union had raised standards for all janitors were then forced to work in an underground economy of cash payments, wage theft, and working for below minimum wage.
That audit and subsequent ones devastated the union; almost our entire steward structure was lost, and the trauma experienced by those members and their coworkers, as well as those of us who could do nothing to stop the injustice of unjust laws, remains to this day. When the wealthy get their politicians in power, they guarantee that Wall Street financiers can wreck the entire economy and no one will be held accountable. Our union fought hard to elect Obama, and we couldn’t keep our members employed. For a while, it broke me.
I learned, though, that when you do this work, you cannot wish for it to include more moments of unadulterated joy and fewer moments of sorrow and pain. Instead, what we do in this work is breathe in pain, and breathe out light.
I left academia at a time when I felt detached from the world and anxious to be more engaged in it. That, I accomplished: this work keeps you grounded, even or especially when it is excruciatingly hard. It has been the privilege of my life to do this work, and that is what I will miss the most. In the next year, I will remain engaged with our members and movement work — and am staying in Minnesota — as I research and write as a Fellow of the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University. I will be working on a book project that tells stories of movement work, taking lessons from my work in the past 14 years to think through proposals for new forms of worker organization. Working people desperately need new movement energy to counter ever more grotesque inequity and inequality, and many of the lessons we have learned at Local 26 can help spark that. That project will involve long-form interviews with members of Local 26 and other Minnesota movement leaders. I will also finally have time to combine my passion for stage storytelling with worke- movement work, building programming for Local 26 members and other worker and movement folks to create a public storytelling series, housed in Strike Theater in Minneapolis.
I have always had a hard time with good-byes. My husband John likes to point out that infamously long “Minnesota Goodbyes” turn into death marches in the hands of this Puerto Rican transplant to the north. Leaving a hotel room, even after a short visit, I can’t help but feel a bit blue, and on the last day of a conference, I will rush out of a room the minute I see exhibits being packed up. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that “It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.” I still struggle with that lesson. But I am certain that letting go of the permanence of being president of Local 26 at this moment is the right thing for our members, for our union, and for me.
To those members and the amazing staff leadership, over half of whom started as rank and file members, my gratitude is deep and unending. We have built together, laughed together, and cried together. We have accepted fear as something to take head on, not run away from. We are many years from the days when other tenants in our office building of labor unions called the police because they assumed that the gathering of East Africans couldn’t possibly be union members. (Yes, that happened.) We have changed the face of labor and the practice of organizing and politics in Minnesota. Security officers, we were told, would never go on strike: well, we did, twice, and those strikes were key to winning contracts with historic gains. Immigrants, some thought, would be too intimidated to fight or strike: we showed that people who leave to make a better life for their children and move to a country where the language is foreign and that sometimes receives them with hostility are risk-takers. Thousands of Minnesotans have taken more money home in their paychecks, brought more money into their communities, helped their children and families and neighborhoods thrive, because of those risks we took. I have so much faith in you and look forward to seeing you continue to reinvent and create a workers’ movement for all.