Eliot Seide was even more fired up than usual when he sat down for a Thursday-morning interview at AFSCME Council 5’s South St. Paul offices last month with the Union Advocate. News had just broken that the U.S. Supreme Court would hear a case with the potential to weaken public-sector workers’ collective bargaining power, and it had Seide and his staff scrambling to craft a public response.
The interview, scheduled weeks in advance, was timed to coincide with Seide’s retirement as executive director of the state’s largest union of public-service workers. (Assistant Director John Westmoreland assumed the top post Nov. 1, with Seide staying on to assist with the transition until sometime in December.)
A 39-year veteran of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Seide is the only executive director Council 5 has ever known. After organizing and political stints for the union in Florida, Minnesota, New York and elsewhere, Seide moved back to guide the merger of three Minnesota councils into one, finalized in October 2004.
As the council’s founding director, Seide has been a fierce advocate for public workers – and a vocal critic of any attempt to cut, privatize or diminish their work. That includes court cases like Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, and Seide didn’t hold back on that or any other topic in this interview, which has been edited for length.
UA: What drew you to a career in the labor movement?
ES: I don’t really think I had much of a choice… My father learned the printing trade from my grandfather, and he became a chief steward, a business agent and eventually president of Local 51, the Commercial Printers Union in New York City. My mother is a retired AFSCME member. Table talk in our house was about the union… I didn’t get to go to the dentist until the Printers negotiated dental benefits.
UA: How did Minnesota become home?
ES: After (Tim) Pawlenty won the governor’s race and the 2002 elections didn’t go so well for us, the AFSCME councils here asked the international president if I could come back. We started a program called Take Back Minnesota, which I ran for about 9 months. Then I became the director of Council 14, and we started discussions about merging the councils together.
UA: How has that merger paid off?
ES: What we wanted to do was not just consolidate and get larger, but to change. We needed a full-time organizing program and a full-time communications program to project a bold, proud image of what our members do and who we are. And we wanted to do political action in a more thorough way. To use an agricultural metaphor, we were harvesting, but we weren’t seeding, planting and fertilizing.
We went through two shutdowns and difficult contract negotiations with the state. We had to fight back furloughs from the Pawlenty administration. There have been attempts to take away our bargaining rights as early as the 2003 legislative session. But because of our unification, workers have a stronger voice in the workplace. And as a result of the capacity that workers built in this union, Mark Dayton got elected governor. That was the difference between us being Wisconsin or us being Minnesota.
UA: For politicians on the right like Scott Walker, public employees and their unions have become popular targets. Is it an intentional decision at Council 5 never to duck that fight?
ES: Absolutely. My grandmother would say you can tell the quality of a civilization by the state of its libraries. It’s no lift to defend and project a bold, proud image of public workers. Without public workers our roads don’t get maintained, our bridges will be unsafe, the roads don’t get plowed. It’s public workers who stock the lakes with walleye, who make sure we have the most pristine, beautiful parks in the country. The vulnerable folks in our society … are all served by public workers at the state and local level. Without public workers, Minnesota has no quality of life.
UA: We’ve known for a while that, as a result of cases like Janus, right-to-work conditions are on the horizon for public employees nationwide. Will Council 5 be able to continue building power for public workers in that environment?
ES: First, you have to ask this: Why do they want to rob the voice of workers in the workplace? They won Citizens United, and now they want total control of the political process in the U.S. This is about a grab for power by the wealthy, and it’s an abomination. It shouldn’t be happening. We have to confront this, and that’s what the union movement is about.
Council 5 has been about bringing workers together and strengthening the voice of workers in the workplace. The council first has to service its members. But we feel very strongly that we can only serve our members by advocating for all workers. That’s why we’ve allied ourselves with coalitions to raise the wage in the Twin Cities and Duluth. That’s why we fought for parental leave, much to the chagrin of the Legislature. It’s why we’re working in Duluth on earned sick and safe time.
UA: What might things look like for Council 5 if the Janus challenge succeeds?
ES: We’ve had attacks going back to the Pawlenty administration. That’s why we merged. But look, you’ve got to do a fearless self-examination. You’ve got to say to yourself, there are things I’m doing well and there are things I’m not. And we realized, as an organization, we have got to do a better job of having day-to-day communication, one on one with workers. And since January of last year we have had those conversations with over 31,000 members – and we’re not satisfied yet until we get to 40,000. We’ve signed up thousands of new members.
We are building networks in the workplace to make sure folks know that in order to continue to have that voice in the workplace, we have to answer this fundamental question: Do we want to have a union? And the resounding answer from AFSCME Council 5 members has been, damn right we do.
UA: As you look back on your time here, are their particular things you’re proud of? Any regrets?
ES: It’s very satisfying when workers come and tell you the work we’ve done made a difference in their lives. I was at Hennepin County Medical Center, and a cafeteria worker I’ve known for a very long time came up and said she wanted to give me a hug. I asked her why, and she said, ‘Because without the work that Council 14 did and you did when you were our rep, they would have privatized the food service by now – and I wouldn’t be getting a pension.’ That’s a very satisfying thing to hear.”