Something is stirring in places long forgotten or overlooked. Young leaders are emerging to take the fight to the boss as workers, immigrants and so many others are under attack. One of those voices speaking with vision, passion, accessibility and intellectual precision is Kooper Caraway. On Jan 3rd 2018 he was elected President of the Sioux Falls AFL-CIO. At 27, he became the youngest Central Labor Council (CLC) President in the United States.
I got a chance to chat with Kooper on a patio enjoying the beginning of spring in Downtown, Sioux Falls. I came away from the conversation sensing that the fight workers are facing demands equal parts sensitivity, clarity and righteousness. Kooper and I also came to appreciate that all over the United States there are plenty of young leaders ready and able to lead. Someone like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t need trainings on policy etc she just needed an opportunity to speak truth to power and for entrenched leadership to step aside. For the rest of us let’s just enjoy the ride.
Below is a synopsis of our conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Brother Kooper, how do you come to this work? What motivates your thinking?
Eventually I looked around and realized in this country you're in a unique position where you can find, the most desperate forms of poverty and you might only have to walk a block to see the most extravagant wealth. Seeing all that, it was obvious to me that something was wrong.
I looked around and said, okay, well what vehicles do we have? What is open and accessible to working class people, to regular folks that we can use to stop this, to change it and the labor movement is what we have, for better or worse, that's what we have.
Throughout the history of the AFL-CIO, there's always been kind of a struggle between two schools of thought. one school says, the obligation of the Labor movement and the obligation to an officer of the Labor movement is to represent their membership.
There is another school of thought that says that the obligation, is working class people in general, wherever that may be, whoever they are and that's where I come from. The labor movement is the only voice that working people have.
What’s happening in South Dakota? Please lay out the organzing context.
My labor council has existed since 1902, 40 years before the National Labor Relations act. In the early days there were a lot of strikes, bloody street fighting and stuff like that. The labor movement was built by immigrants with similar beliefs in WE and US and they were shut down like other movements.
The Midwest is littered with acres and acres of unmarked graves of folks who showed up to do a job and were disappeared because they signed a union card. In the middle of the night., hooded figures came in and snatched them out of the tent. Despite all that people organized. There is a strong history of prairie populism, workers and farmers coming together, building co-ops and that legacy is what is fertilizing a lot of what’s happening.
The labor movement was built by immigrants with similar beliefs in WE and US.
If you are coming from outside of South Dakota, 90% chance that image is wrong. I think the classic image is a third generation Norwegian farmer but, in actuality, if you look at the union membership in Sioux Falls it is a majority immigrant and refugee, so majority people of color. Most of the immigrant refugee community here are from Africa, a lot of folks from Somalia, South Africa, and Ethiopia. They are coming over here with strong values of solidarity and community, that hadn't been activated before.
Previous to my election, the leadership of the Labour Council was all white, now three of the five seats on the executive board are people of color. That's a majority. Mainly what we're trying to do is we're trying to bring labor back all the way to its roots.
When labor was first getting organized, it was about the working class because there weren't really any unions. You couldn't say, we only represent our members you got to fight for the whole working class and that's what built unions into a strong force.
At the apex of working class power we got things like a 40 hour work week. There's no reason why today if we don't return to our roots and organize the working class as a whole, we can't do away with, with right to work nationwide. There's no reasonwhy we can't go from an eight hour workday to a six hour or four hour workday. There's no reason why we can't have any of that. All we have to do is get active and organize in the streets.
So what is it like to organize in a “right-to-work” state?
South Dakota has been right-to-work since before right-to-work. To win an election in the public sector you need 50%, plus one of the entire bargaining unit whether they vote or not. Anyone who doesn't show up to vote, the state will cast their vote for them as a no vote. They can and do manipulate bargaining units to strengthen the no vote by including workers that are more inaccessible.
Two years ago we organized a hospital, in a small town called Redfield. It's a state hospital and this is a place that went 90% for Donald Trump in 2016. But they voted 92 to three. So, the state hospital was union before but it was decertified in the 70s. Folks came out and voted 177 to 20 in favor of maintaining their union. But their union was decertified because they needed 178. It's not democratic at all. There is no value or principle of democracy, there is no respect for the will of the workers. There's none of that. It's, you know, the state knows best for you. If you think you need a union, you're wrong. We're going to vote no for you.
What happened after y’all took over the CLC?
We did three things when I was first elected:
1. We got a “Welcoming City” resolution passed at the City Council, like the Sanctuary Cities resolution in Minneapolis. Before that the South Dakota state legislature attempted to pass a resolution declaring Islam an enemy of the state of South Dakota. The resolution would have called for every organization; nonprofit, Church and business, to take a position, either in favor or against it. Organizations coming out against the resolution would also be declared enemies of the state of South Dakota. So the labor movement, along with our allies and the refugee communities, lobbied against the resolution and won.
2. We formed the International Solidarity Committee, which is made up entirely of immigrant and refugee union members. The Committee’s job is two fold. One, welcome incoming immigrants or refugees, educate them on their rights as workers and help organize them into unions. The second is to educate US born workers on labor struggles that are going on in their home countries, in Africa, South America, Central America, so that folks understand that this is a global working class movement. It always has been a global working class movement and we're part of it here in South Dakota.
3. Updated our constitution because it is a little bit out of date. Through that process we banned white supremacists and fascists from holding office in our Labor Council.
What is your backstory?
I'm from the south. I went to elementary school in Alabama. It seemed like every weekend there was some sort of white supremacist terrorist attack or a black church would get burned down, a community center would be attacked.
I grew up working class poor. There were times when I came home from school and our bags are packed and okay, we got to go, lost a job, we have got to go find another job. There were weeks when my family lived off of one little Caesar's pizza, and made that last for the week.
There were times when we didn't have running water. As a kid, I would find milk jugs and then wait until one in the morning and jump over my neighbor's fence and fill the jugs up with water from their water hose and use that to shower in the morning before school.
As a working class family we moved to where the jobs were throughout the south - ended up in Texas; I went to High school in East Texas. I started organizing in high school. Every once in a while there'd be an immigration raid and as a response we would organize walk outs.
After I graduated and moved to Dallas, that's where I joined the labor movement. Became an organizer with Jobs with Justice, went to work with the American Federation of Teachers and organized it with UFCW. I was brought to Sioux Falls by AFSCME Council 65, based in Minnesota. They needed someone who knew how to operate in a right to work state. So, coming from Texas and all over the south, I had that experience, and so I came up here and I've been here ever since.
What should we look forward to coming out of Sioux Falls?
We have a few things in the works, to build more solidarity and more power for immigrant and refugee workers in Sioux Falls. We will make that announcement when we are ready to, but when we do, we're going to need folks to look out and, you know, we're going to need bodies, door knockers, you know, we're going to need money.
In Sioux Falls our rank and file is organized. And we are ready and willing to go anywhere, to show support for our brothers and sisters and labor movement. We will come to Minnesota. We will put a bus together and we'll come to Minnesota if they need anything from us, but we're going to also expect that same reciprocity from folks in Minnesota.
We trust our brothers and sisters in Minnesota. So I know when we put the call out, we'll have support.