Remembering David Roe, who expanded labor’s political clout in Minnesota

mug-roeDavid Roe, whose 19-year tenure as president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO saw historic expansions of workers’ rights and protections in the state, died Feb. 13. He was 92.

Labor leaders and lawmakers remembered Roe as a major player in Minnesota politics and devoted family man, whose concern for the welfare of working people was genuine and enduring, as shown by his successful campaign to install the Workers Memorial Garden on the Capitol grounds.

“Dave Roe was a giant of a man and one of the most influential Minnesotans of his generation,” Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said. “His lifelong commitment to better wages and working conditions greatly improved the lives of thousands of hard-working Minnesotans. I extend my deepest condolences to his family.”

Bill McCarthy, the fifth person to hold the office of federation president since Roe stepped down in 1984, called news of Roe’s death “a huge loss to both our movement and our entire state.”

“No Minnesota Labor leader loomed as large as David Roe did,” McCarthy said. “His example as both a leader and a person is still the gold standard for our state’s labor movement.”

After being discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1946, Roe first became a member of the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks before joining Lathers Local 190 a year later. Members elected Roe to serve as Local 190’s vice president in 1951, and he quickly rose up through the ranks of union leadership. By 1956 Roe was serving both as business representative of the Minneapolis Building Trades Council and as president of the Trades statewide.

The state’s largest labor federation, the Minnesota AFL-CIO was still in its infancy when Roe succeeded Robert Olson as president in 1966. Olson, who guided the 1956 merger of the AFL and CIO in Minnesota, endorsed Roe, and he ran unopposed.

This photo accompanied the Union Advocate's report on Roe's election to the state's top union office in 1966.

This photo accompanied the Union Advocate’s report on Roe’s election to the state’s top union office in 1966.

Roe immediately focused his attention on building labor’s political clout, personally taking charge of lobbying at the state Capitol, where, he remembered in an interview with the Union Advocate upon his retirement, “many labor bills were routinely stuck into the desk drawers of committee chairman and rarely heard.”

That had changed by the mid-1970s, when labor’s political efforts helped elect progressive majorities in the Legislature and a young, DFL governor, the late Wendy Anderson. Between 1973 and 1978, Minnesota saw a slew of labor-backed reforms enacted into law, including a minimum wage, prevailing wages for public construction projects, major increases in unemployment insurance and workers compensation, a progressive income tax and expansion of collective bargaining rights to most public employees.

“Under David’s leadership, the Minnesota AFL-CIO became a strong voice both at the State Capitol and at the voting booth,” McCarthy said. “David understood how vital it was for union members and all working people to be involved in the political process, and his record proves it.”

Roe developed close relationships with titans of Minnesota politics, including former vice presidents Hubert Humphrey, who asked Roe to travel with him to South Vietnam in 1967 to survey the U.S. military campaign, and Walter Mondale, who was elected to the U.S. Senate the same year Roe won election as Minnesota AFL-CIO president.

Mondale called Roe a “dear friend” in an interview with the Minneapolis Labor Review after Roe’s death. “We’ve been almost like members of the same family ever since (1966). We worked together on the issues,” Mondale said, including the creation of OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in 1971.

As powerful a presence as he became in the corridors of political power, colleagues in the labor movement said he never lost touch with the rank-and-file workers he represented. A Star Tribune editorial published two days after Roe’s death recalled the labor leader’s vocal support of a black civil rights leader running for Minneapolis mayor in 1971, as well as Roe’s unwavering support for the “Willmar 8,” who staged a historic strike for equal pay at a bank in 1977.

Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota Building Trades, called Roe a “kind and supportive” person who counseled many emerging leaders in the movement, Melander included. “Dave set the bar for what people within the labor community should be like, how people should work together,” Melander said. “He was the face of labor in Minnesota.”

Roe announced his decision to retire as president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO just weeks after Mondale’s landslide loss to Ronald Reagan in 1984. The move caught many members of the federation’s executive board by surprise. According to the Advocate’s report: “In the momentary confusion following the statement it became clear that the board was not going to vote to accept Roe’s resignation. With characteristic terseness, Roe commented, ‘I know how to deal with this. Is there any objection? Then, so ordered.’”

In retirement Roe continued to hold seats on influential committees, including the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. Appointed in May 1981, he served consecutive six-year terms as a regent, and also held seats on the Board of Visitors for the U of M Medical School and the Minnesota Racing Commission.

But Roe sunk most of his retirement energy into efforts to build a lasting tribute to the working people who built Minnesota. It started with the Labor Interpretive Center – a project eventually scrapped by Gov. Jesse Ventura – and came to fruition with the Workers’ Memorial Garden, dedicated in August 2010 on the State Capitol grounds. A mural at the memorial was finished in May 2016.

It’s thought to be the first memorial of its kind in any state capitol, according to Paul Mandell, executive secretary of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board. “David always took pride in that,” Mandell said. “He was going to make sure Minnesota was the first to recognize the greatness of everyday workers.”

Roe was preceded in death by his wife Audrey, and is survived by daughters Judy Grudem, Nancy Holtz and Susie Olson. Visitation is Sunday, Feb. 19, from 1 to 4 p.m. at Washburn-McReavy Edina Chapel, 5000 W. 50th St., Edina. A funeral will be held Monday, Feb. 20, at 11 a.m. at Mount Zion Lutheran Church, 5645 Chicago Av., with visitation at 10 a.m.

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