Labor values are lived, not learned for union members on the 2020 ballot

Members of labor unions make the best labor-endorsed candidates. Fortunately for working families, several union members are running for office this year with the Labor 2020 endorsement.

“We know that when union members hold public office, they champion our values and work hard to shift the balance of power for working people,” said Bill McCarthy, president of the state’s largest labor federation, the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

A power shift is exactly what Josiah Hill, an English teacher in the Stillwater school system, has in mind with his campaign to represent Senate District 39, which straddles the St. Croix River in Washington County.

Republicans hold a narrow, three-seat majority in the Senate, and they have used it to thwart progress on “environmental protection, public-school funding and expanding access to affordable health care coverage,” Hill said. Unseating his incumbent opponent would be a step toward a labor majority in the chamber.

Hill has served six terms as president of his union, the St. Croix Education Association. It’s an experience he considers the “perfect training exercise” for the Legislature because it involved reaching compromise, not scoring political points.

“I’m solutions focused,” Hill said. “I’m not interested in short-term wins. The work I’ve had to engage in makes it necessary to listen deeply to all parties and to find solutions that allow us to move forward with the resources available.”

Like Hill, Erin Preese is a union educator vying to unseat an incumbent. Preese’s work teaching English-language learners in the Lakeville schools has informed the type of legislator she hopes to be for the residents of House District 58A.

In fact, it’s why she’s running in the first place. Two years ago, as a member of the Lakeville Education Association’s committee on government relations, Preese paid a visit to her House representative – now her opponent – to advocate for fair funding of public schools.

“It was frustrating,” Preese remembered. “Our current representative, he has two daughters in private school, and sometimes it’s hard to understand life experiences that are not your own.”

Preese said she plans to continue teaching in Lakeville if she wins Nov. 3, with a leave of absence during the legislative session.

“The decisions made at the Capitol have real effects on people here at our school, on their everyday lives,” she said. “Working will help me stay grounded. I think maybe if you’re at the Capitol too much you can get caught up in the politics.”

Jim Swenson makes a point of keeping politics out of the City of North Branch’s business. A member of Local 110 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Swenson is seeking reelection this fall to a second two-year term as the Chisago County community’s mayor.

North Branch is growing, and Swenson’s focus has been on making that growth sustainable for everyone. Building permits are up over 250% this year, and the city has seen 96 new homes built already in 2020. A 48-unit, income-based housing development has opened, and last year the city added a 20-unit apartment complex for people struggling with mental-health issues and homelessness.

In August, Gov. Tim Walz visited North Branch to present the city with a “Telecommuter Forward!” award for its efforts to expand broadband internet access citywide – something of critical importance to workers during the pandemic. During the ceremony, Swenson said, he pulled Walz aside and touted the nonpartisan, community effort that led to North Branch’s success.

“This is the way government needs to work, with two people from totally separate parties working together,” Swenson told Walz. “Can you believe that? It’s the way government should work – for the people.”

Bringing people together is, of course, what unions do. So it should come as no surprise Swenson and other candidates with union backgrounds are good at it. As a member of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE) for the last six years, House District 58B candidate Sara Wolf has seen firsthand the power of collective voice.

“It’s telling that when the topic of health insurance comes up and someone says, ‘I’m union,’ everybody knows that it means they have good insurance!” Wolf laughed.

Kaela Berg, a flight attendant seeking office in House District 56B, remembered how she felt upon joining her union, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, 17 years ago. It was “a spark that was ignited that became a fire in my belly for fighting for working families,” she said.

Since signing that union card, Berg has taken an active role in local movements for economic and environmental justice, serving a stint as director of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition. Now she’s ready to go to work in the Legislature, fighting to advance the priorities she and all labor-endorsed candidates share, like accessible health care, fully funded schools and economic opportunity for everyone.

“They aren’t just legislative talking points to me,” Berg said. “They are my lived experience. I’m passionate about a Minnesota that works for working families.”

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