For 20 years, Lynne Larkin-Wright helped union members get through the ‘bumps on the road’

Lynne Larkin-Wright receives a letter of appreciation from U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum for her four decades of service to the community. McCollum’s district director, Josh Straka, presented the letter on her behalf.

Lynne Larkin-Wright had been in the workforce five years when her father, George, a member and officer of Laborers Local 132, confronted her with a question: “Why would you work anything other than union?”

Soon thereafter, Larkin-Wright never did. She took a job with the City of St. Paul, where she would remain for 20 years as a member of Local 2508 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Her father was onto something.

“Just knowing how much better your life can be and how much more stable your life can be, rather than being at the whim of someone else,” Larkin-Wright said. “It makes such a difference.”

But a union card isn’t a shield against economic hardship. Layoffs, downturns, work stoppages and unexpected medical expenses are just some of the life events that can throw union members’ lives into turmoil.

When union members in the East Metro have found themselves in economic crisis over the last 20 years, they’ve had a friend in Larkin-Wright, who retired July 2 from her position as an AFL-CIO Community Services liaison with the St. Paul Labor Studies and Resource Center. The LSRC is the nonprofit arm of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, and a longstanding partner organization of Greater Twin Cities United Way.

Larkin-Wright reflected on that partnership – and the 40 years she’s spent in the local labor movement – in this interview, published in the August 2020 issue of The Union Advocate.

UA: How did you go from payroll clerk at the city to AFL-CIO Community Services liaison?

LLW: At some point the city and my union loaned me to the United Way to help raise money at campaign time. I was also on the board of United Way of St. Paul as a labor representative, where I worked in fund-distribution with local nonprofits. I also got involved on the Community Services Committee as a delegate to the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly, and went through their union counselor training, learning about resources available in the community.

UA: Tell me about your dad’s influence on your career path.

LLW: When we were kids, we were the first on the block to buy a color TV. I have a friend who reminds me of it to this day! We had good health insurance and dental insurance. My mother, she lived 20 years longer than my dad, but she never had to worry about paying for surgery or medication or dialysis. All the work Dad did maintaining good contracts for members helped him as well.

UA: You remained a dues-paying member of AFSCME Local 2508 even after leaving the city. What has it meant to be part of that union?

LLW: Getting involved in my local was one of the best things I ever did. That and being loaned to the United Way, those are the two best things that ever happened to me. After getting up and public speaking at United Way meetings, when I went back to my local, I wouldn’t say no to getting up and saying something in front of the City Council. I’m sure for the city it was like, “Look what we’ve created!”

But for me it was a huge shift. I remember one of the first things (former RLF President) Shar Knutson had me do in this job was go in front of the City Council and request a Workers Memorial Day proclamation. I remember thinking, “I don’t know if I need to do that.” But I marched up there and did it. And it opened up a path to a lot of things I didn’t know I could do.

Lynne Larkin-Wright’s appointment to the United Way board made news in the the Feb. 21, 1994, issue of The Union Advocate.

UA: What else surprised you about the job?

LLW: I remember in my interview there were like 13 people at the table. Shar always wanted to have other people’s input, and I think because we were friends, she also wanted to make sure there wasn’t any bias, that I had all the tools.

But the work we were doing 20 years ago is different than the work we’re doing now. And it will change again. I think that’s the beauty of what the United Way does. They change based on the needs of the community. Every United Way is different because every community is different. That means LSRC’s program is going to change, and we have to.

UA: What’s changed in 20 years?

LLW: People used to come in with one thing that was going on. You helped them with that, and they were on their way. Now the issues are multiple. I think health care is a big piece of that. Retirement security is a big piece of that.

UA: What’s the one resource you wish more people knew about?

LLW: We’ve been talking about United Way 211 first call for help for 40 years! People still don’t know it’s out there. But also our program, for union members to know that it’s a resource that’s there, and that Community Services liaisons are there to help? You can only say those things so many times.

Union folks aren’t used to asking for help. They’re used to being the folks out there helping. I’ve seen that recently with unemployment. People are proud and want to take care of themselves, but we all experience bumps on the road of life. If there’s help out there to make that path a little less bumpy, why not take it?

UA: What’s kept you doing this work? What’s been frustrating?

LLW: I really liked reducing stress for folks, even if it’s temporary. That has been so rewarding. I’ve been very fortunate to do this work.

The frustrating part? You can encourage people to help themselves, but sometimes they don’t. All you can do is keep encouraging people in the right direction.

UA: You’ve built so many relationships in this movement. What are some that have meant the most?

LLW: I’ve been blessed to work with great people, and not everybody can say that. I’ve still got friends I worked with 40 years ago!

I had been mentored by several people and didn’t even realize it was happening. Wayne Wittman (former Community Services Committee chair and Machinists union delegate) was a big one, and so were Shar and Robin Madsen from AFSCME. We did a lot of fun things, and we got a lot of good stuff done. Getting up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday and pounding lawn signs with other unions, or having picnics together – knowing we were all in the same boat, working together.

Because if employers find out they can divide you? Well, good luck.

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