USW’s Parzino made a career of paper, politics and putting working folks first

Gerry Parzino at the District 11 offices in northeast Minneapolis.

Philip and Genevieve Parzino were working at Brown and Bigelow when they met in the 1920s. Eventually, they fell in love and married.

Their story may sound typical, but Genevieve and Philip were 12 and 13 years old when they met on that calendar factory floor. It’s a bit of family history their son Gerard never forgot as he pursued a 44-year career in the United Steelworkers Union, fighting to improve the lives of working people.

“Luckily, there were unions to change child labor laws,” he said. “Otherwise, I would have probably fallen into the same type of path.”

Instead, Gerry Parzino graduated from high school in 1974 and took a job at International Paper, where he became a member of St. Paul-based United Paperworkers International Union Local 264. (Today, it’s Steelworkers Local 264.)

Parzino served as the local’s secretary, vice president, president and business agent before taking a full-time job with Steelworkers District 11 almost 18 years ago. His focus there remained the paper industry, but Parzino rose through the ranks to become district sub-director for Minnesota and North Dakota.

Over that time, he and his wife, Joan, raised a family of three children, all of whom now have children of their own. Household chores are the only child labor any of them have ever known.

March 2 was Parzino’s last day on the job before retirement. He looked back on his career in this interview, edited for length and clarity.

UA: What’s your earliest memory, as a local agent or with the district, of tackling something big?

GP: Just after I was elected business agent in January 1995, the Waldorf paper mill’s contract was up, and the international staff wasn’t available to help much. I was a new business agent with 700-plus members at the plant – bigger than the whole local is now. That was a huge challenge, but we delivered that contract without a strike.

UA: It’s amazing to think the mill had more members then than the local does now. So much has changed in the industrial landscape here.

GP: I’ve gone through 10 permanent closures in the forest products industry, almost 1,100 members and families who’ve been affected. It’s just been devastating for families, and I’ve seen it more than any person would want to. Probably the most difficult was the Sartell local in 2012, with the explosion and fire (at the Verso Paper Mill) that burnt out of control for about 10 days. We lost a member in that fire; it was his first day back from a layoff recall. The combined loss of jobs and loss of life, that was really tough.

Parzino (L) showed a visitor from Denmark around the Waldorf paper mill in St. Paul during an international exchange event in 1995. (file photo)

UA: How are Steelworkers fighting back against job losses in the industry?

GP: We’ve been really proactive on illegal trade practices; we’ve won dozens and dozens of cases.

In 2015 we had a small group of workers who make a calcium carbonate slurry up in Cloquet, and their employer wanted to eliminate their pension and their rule of 90, cut their health care plan and give a zero wage increase. We had five guys that went on strike for four and a half months, and they brought that multinational corporation to its knees. It was a 100 percent successful strike, and those five workers stood for everybody in the industry.

UA: The international union also has been proactive in getting ready for inevitable greening of our global economy. How successful has that been?

GP: The bottom line is we really do have more in common, as labor and environmental groups, than we do in opposition. Steelworkers have always believed in strong health and safety, not only for ourselves but the communities we live and work in.

UA: A lot of these fights come back to political issues. Have you enjoyed that part of the job?

GP: I’ve always been politically active… Just take a look at what’s happened to our east, whether it’s Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky… We’d be long gone if it wasn’t for Gov. Dayton. Without his veto pen, we’d be in the same boat.

UA: What are Steelworkers seeing in those right-to-work states?

GP: Obviously, it’s going to affect our membership. When employers can use a divide-and-conquer strategy, it’s going to leak into the strength of our collective agreements. That’s basically the strategy behind right to work.

UA: What’s next for you?

GP: A lot of travel with my wife. Hunting, fishing, golfing. And grandkids.

Comments

  1. Richard LaCosse says:

    I had the privilege of knowing and working with Gerry. He always had the interests of those he served, at the forefront of everything he did in his working life. I wish him all the very best in his retirement and I truly hope he and Joan enjoy a well deserved long and happy retirement.

%d bloggers like this: