When I came out of college I took a job at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I had wanted to teach. I had graduated with honors. I was proud of my studies in English, linguistics and education. But the job as a motor messenger I took paid twice what I was being offered as a teacher. I thought, I’ll work and continue to look for something permanent.
But a funny thing happened. I went to a union meeting. My unit leader asked me to come to the next meeting. I soon became a steward.
The company decided to use experimental vehicles – pickups with natural gas tanks in the bed of the truck. There was a switch that toggled between regular gas and natural gas. But one of the trucks had caught fire one day. I did some research and the union requested a meeting with management. Our information stunned the company and made my supervisor very angry. He was a bully who would remove the window crank if you left the window down. You’d be stuck in a hot vehicle with no air-conditioning. The company had to agree to setup a committee with us to continue to discuss the use and safety of our vehicles. I was amazed.
And then one of the women on the bargaining committee who was pregnant developed health concerns. My union rep asked me to replace her. I told him that I didn’t think I could do it, that I didn’t know enough. He assured me that I would do just fine. He saw something in me I did not yet see in myself.
My life had purpose even though I still was underemployed and had a bully for a boss. The union saw me as a person of value. I was able to help my fellow workers.
And so began a journey that took me next to marketing and I became a unit officer. I took a leave to be strike captain when the company became corporate and strung barbed wire around our building to intimidate us. When I came back after 9 months of working for the local, the unit had a good contract. I was put in the worst job in circulation that they could find.
By then I was working with a remarkable woman who was the unit chair. But in practice I became the unit chair and she, and others, taught me everything they knew. My local’s executive officer John Carmichael became my mentor. I grieved my way into the newsroom, where I worked for several years.
I took a full-time job as a local rep for the local and then at age 30 I became the executive officer of the local. None of this would have happened if my unit leader had not seen something in me, or if he had not asked me to come back to the next unit meeting. With my father’s values of honesty and hard work, and with the support and education I received from my fellow Guild leaders I found my life’s mission. My belief in union democracy, in union process, in fundamental fairness, drew me to working for the union. And most importantly I learned to reach out to others, to ask them to meetings, to put the choices we made to the bargaining committees. The union was never about me. It was about working with all of these wonderful people who understood that the union was us. It made for a workplace worth being in, and for a company that was stronger, and a product that was better.
I am so proud of getting my union card at age 21 and that the union reached out to me and believed in me. It has defined my life.