Bernie Burnham: From ‘PTA mom’ to president-elect of the MN AFL-CIO

Although I never met the late Senator Paul Wellstone, two quotes of his ring true to me in the work I do each day:

  • “We all do better when we all do better.”
  • “If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.”

I am Bernie Burnham, new president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. I’ve been thinking about how I came to this point in my life. A woman of Filipino and Irish heritage, it seems natural to me to be the voice of labor and to stand with working people in Minnesota. My parents raised my brother and I to always help people, especially if they were in need.

As a young girl, I witnessed, like many of you, the Civil Rights Movement on television. I thought, truly, the world is better because of the actions of Dr. King, and yet today I mourn the atrocities of racial and economic injustices so many of our sisters and brothers live with daily.

Moving through life, it’s been clear my work is to lead and make change to improve people’s lives. I started my life’s work as a PTA mom. I then became a classroom assistant and playground monitor, where I saw children whose lives were dependent on their parents doing their best, in spite of frequent obstacles they encountered. I saw the unfairness and inequities in a system we all trusted.  It was evident we had work to do!

Time went on, and I was encouraged to get my teaching certificate by the assistant principal at the school my children attended. With support from my family, I went to the University of Minnesota to earn my bachelor’s degree in elementary education. It was a proud day when I crossed the stage to begin my career as an educator.

Starting my first classroom job, I signed up to be a member of the Duluth Federation of Teachers, Local #692, immediately. I was 40 and clearly had expectations about how things should be for our students and colleagues. Asked to be a union steward, I accepted the responsibility readily. Our school district started, in partnership with the DFT, what was to become a strong labor-management team. I was fortunate to be a part of this and decided I wanted more as a union leader and advocate. I ran for the DFT executive board twice and earned a spot the second time around. I became the president of our local in 2014. Engaging with our community as a voice for educators and at the state level with Education Minnesota fed my soul.

I thrived on the energy my work provided, particularly working with the community, with and for our members and having conversations about the impact of our voice collectively. With our state union, we were able to have an Early Career Leadership group, something I knew was vital to our future.

Our partnership with the Central Labor Body in Duluth opened my eyes to another larger piece of the labor movement. We were successful, together, in electing leaders who supported labor. We turned a school board over to be pro-educator and passed a referendum or two.

The last two years have challenged us all, with COVID and racial injustice putting Minnesota in the spotlight. A good number of our members have been on the front lines – at first appreciated, now fighting for the contracts they deserve. Affordable health care, earned safe and sick time, family sustaining jobs, and the fight to get the PRO Act passed – these are issues worth fighting for. Standing together in solidarity is key to our survival!

I’ve been fortunate to have great support in my life, and I am grateful. I look forward to our collective work as a labor movement. I am certain, working together, that we can keep Minnesota strong, a place where all people – no matter their color, who they love or where they live – will thrive. I hope you’ll join us.

– Elected in December, Bernie Burnham will succeed Bill McCarthy as president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO on Feb. 1. A member of Education Minnesota, Burnham is the first person of color elected to the state’s highest-ranking union office. She wrote this column for The Union Advocate’s February 2022 edition.

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