State AFL-CIO convention spotlights worker power, political goals

A panel brings together worker-organizers from Planned Parenthood, MN United, Activision Blizzard and Trader Joe’s.

Labor leaders and activists from across the state gathered in St. Paul this week for the Minnesota AFL-CIO‘s 56th constitutional convention, looking to tap into the energy of a recent wave of union-organizing victories as they make a united political push this fall.

Several of the federation’s endorsed candidates, including Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, addressed the delegation of nearly 300 union members. Walz said labor backing was less “a pat on the back” and more of a “kick in the butt” to win a second term, strengthen Minesota’s labor laws and carry forward the state’s economic recovery.

“The one thing I want union members in Minnesota to know is, as long as I am governor, you do not have to spend one second worrying about a piece of anti-union legislation crossing my desk,” Walz told delegates Sept. 20 as the three-day convention came to a close. “We have to get re-elected to make sure workers’ rights are protected, to make sure women’s rights are protected, to make sure voting rights are protected.”

“This November, labor is on the ballot,” Flanagan added. “Our opponent has made it very clear that he will gut labor protections and turn Minnesota into a right-to-work state. That will not happen on our watch.”

MN AFL-CIO President Bernie Burnham chairs her first state fed convention.

Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bernie Burnham, chairing a constitutional convention for the first time, said Republican gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen would “take Minnesota backwards” if elected. Unions, she said, have begun a robust member-to-member outreach campaign to get out the labor vote for Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison, U.S. Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips and other endorsed candidates.

“While the opposition might be able to outspend us, they will never out-organize us,” Burnham said. “We’re going to deliver the union vote in November not only for the governor’s race but to increase the working families’ majority in the state House and flip the state Senate so we can continue building a more just and fair Minnesota.”

Burnham, sworn in Feb. 1 as president of the statewide federation of over 1,000 local unions, won re-election on the convention’s final day, running without opposition. Brad Lehto, secretary-treasurer since 2018, also won re-election, fending off a challenge from Southeast Area Labor Council President Pommella Wegmann.

Burnham and Lehto pledged to continue making progress on the state AFL-CIO’s strategic priorities, to welcome new affiliates into the fold and to build solidarity across the labor movement to support legislative, organizing and collective bargaining campaigns.

“We have only just begun,” Burnham said. “Your state federation is there to assist you as we expand our labor movement and build our power.”

Union membership has increased in Minnesota in each of the last three years, and it’s likely to do so again in 2022, as a wave of union organizing has brought workers in coffee shops, bookstores, craft breweries, nonprofits and health care facilities into the labor movement, both locally and across the U.S.

“We need Minnesota’s labor movement now more than ever,” AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Fred Redmond tells delegates. “So keep organizing, keep mobilizing, keep being a force for working people.”

Organizing took center stage on Day 1 of the convention, when a panel discussion brought together four young workers who have organized or are currently organizing unions: a quality assurance tester at a video game company, a video board technician with Minnesota United, a Planned Parenthood employee and a Trader Joe’s clerk.

“This wave of workplace organizing has been hugely inspirational to all of us,” said Josiah Wollan, a video-board technician organizing with IATSE. “We’ve realized what power workers have, and knowing that has really started this process. We knew there was nothing coming down the line for us – we weren’t going to get anything until we unionized.”

Organizing growth strengthens and diversifies the labor movement, Burnham said. She also credited Minnesota Building Trades unions for their intentional efforts “to recruit workers and young people from underserved communities into their apprenticeship programs.”

“It’s this work that shows the people of Minnesota, no matter where you come from or what you look like, we want you in the labor movement,” Burnham added.

Recent polling shows people want to be in the labor movement, too. Attorney General Ellison was among several convention speakers who pointed to a Gallup survey, taken in August, that found 71% of Americans approve of unions, the highest mark since 1965.

St. Paul Regional Labor Federation President Kera Peterson welcomes delegates to the capital city. “Workers are building power in new and innovative ways, and they’re calling on us to join them in solidarity in that fight,” she said.

“Americans would not know that a union would improve people’s lives unless they saw you improving people’s lives with a union,” Ellison said.

Ellison, Walz and other guests also thanked delegates from the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) for fighting to put patients over profits in their current contract campaign. Some 15,000 hospital nurses in Duluth and the Twin Cities staged a three-day strike last week, the largest private-sector nursing strike in U.S. history.

Fred Redmond, secretary-treasurer of the national AFL-CIO, said Minnesota nurses are turning heads across the labor movement.

“These are heroes, and they’re exhausted,” Redmond said. “They’re underappreciated, and yet corporations keep making cuts, keep squeezing, keep trying to get blood from a stone and keep putting profits before people. But those nurses here in Minnesota said enough is enough.”

MNA President Mary Turner said the strike was a lesson for many members of her union who had never been on a picket line that labor’s power stems from solidarity, which was, appropriately, the theme of the Minnesota AFL-CIO convention.

“We had community members, family and friends, elected officials and our labor allies on the line with us,” Turner said. “To see all the other unions there, this was a part of being a union a lot of younger nurses had no idea existed.

“We know the problems we are facing are not unique. We’re all fighting our own unique battles, but we’re all workers.”

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  1. […] got together and said we wanted a few things,” Josiah Wollan, a camera and replay operator, told delegates to the Minnesota AFL-CIO’s convention in St. Paul on Sunday. “They said no to everything. They didn’t relent in any of our […]

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