Remembering Wayne Wittman, the conscience of St. Paul’s labor community

Wayne Wittman, who served as chair of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation’s Community Services Committee for three decades, died unexpectedly Wednesday. He was 86.

A passionate activist for peace and social justice, Wittman attended the labor federation’s first meeting at the new St. Paul Labor Center earlier this month. Today at the same labor hall (353 West 7th St.), friends and family will gather for a celebration of life from 4 to 7 p.m. [Click to view Wittman’s Pioneer Press obituary.]

Wittman guided St. Paul’s Community Services Committee through a pivotal time in its history, helping expand the labor movement’s relationships with non-profit, faith and social-justice organizations. For Wittman, the committee’s work was an extension of his day job as an advocate for Minnesotans with disabilities.

A member of AFSCME and, later, the Machinists union, Wittman was appointed Community Services Committee chair in 1983. St. Paul was going through a rocky economic time, with union shops like Whirlpool, Grain Belt, American Hoist and Derrick, and Schmidt’s closing or relocating, leaving hundreds of workers without jobs.

Labor leaders looked to the Community Services program to help – a role, former Community Services liaison Bob Bonacorda said, program staff hadn’t taken on before.

“We were deluged with plant closings,” Bonacorda said. “The Assembly leadership was looking for ways we could use the Community Services program to deal with the downturn in the economy.

“Prior to that, we dealt with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, blood drives and that sort of thing – all good things, all helpful things. But we had to switch gears, and it was important that Wayne had an open mind. It was a whole new ballgame for us.”

With Wittman as chair, the Community Services Committee began setting up programs designed to address the needs of union workers left jobless by St. Paul’s changing economy.

The committee started a rapid-response program, which put Community Services liaisons in job sites and union halls as soon as news broke that layoffs were coming so they could direct workers to available services and resources. The committee also solicited donations to an Emergency Fund, which liaisons could tap to provide assistance to individual members in dire financial straits. Both programs remain in place today.

Wittman brought a rolodex full of connections to the Community Services Committee. He served as a deacon at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and was a founding member of the local chapter of Veterans for Peace.

He also made more than 15 trips to El Salvador, working as an international election observer and advocate for two principles: “Peace and justice,” he said. “I’m called that way. Peace and justice issues motivate me to be active. I know that work changes things.”

Colleagues in the labor movement will remember Wittman’s quiet strength, humility and willingness to serve.

Shar Knutson, former president of the St. Paul RLF and the Minnesota AFL-CIO, called Wittman “the conscience of the labor movement in the East Metro.”

“He’s always been on the workers’ side,” Knutson said. “He’s always been on the side of those who need help. In his gentle way, he has been able to make such a difference for our community.”

“I know that things change when people take an interest and articulate and participate,” Wittman told The Advocate in 2010. “If I figure out what I can do as one person to make sense out of this crazy world we live in, then I have some purpose in life.”

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