By TONY PECINOVSKY
Since its 2013 National Convention, the AFL-CIO has been proactively reaching out to and engaging constituency groups, like the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) and Pride at Work (labor’s LGBTQ constituency group), among others, including Workers’ Centers.
Where appropriate, state federations and central labor councils have also taken strides to become more inclusive and welcoming to Workers’ Centers.
THE GREATER ST. LOUIS LABOR COUNCIL IS NO EXCEPTION
At its January executive board and delegate meetings, the Greater St. Louis Labor Council unanimously voted to welcome the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society, a 501(c)3 non-profit, grassroots community-labor worker-education organization as a charter member.
WES, as it is affectionately known by its members, sustainers, partners and allies, has been around for two-and-a-half years, purchasing its headquarters – the former offices of the Operating Engineers’ International Union Local 148 – in September of 2014.
According to Don Giljum, the former business manager of Local 148 and current secretary-treasurer of WES, “We saw a need for the types of services WES provides. We saw a gap that needed to be bridged among community and labor. We figured, if not us than who. So we founded WES.”
WES currently has 114 monthly sustainers and over 600 members, primarily in its service areas of Wards 8, 9, 15 and 20.
Over the past two-plus years, WES has opened its doors to all sorts of movement organizations.
From the National Lawyers Guild, to Latinos’ En Axion; from Diversified Painting Services, Inc., to Jobs with Justice and Show Me $15; from the Coalition for Truth and Independence to A. Super Taxi and 28-to-Life, the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society has become a central hub for progressive, pro-worker activity on St. Louis’ south side.
Additionally, as part of its on-going community engagement, WES hosts monthly potlucks and quarterly DIY political punk concerts.
The monthly potlucks have engaged over 1,000 people over the past year. Bread is broken and friends are made, as WES leaders – many of whom are union members – talk about issues affecting workers in Missouri, the intersection of African-American equality, immigrant and LGBTQ rights and disabilities empowerment.
WES’s quarterly DIY political punk shows, usually draw about 150 people and bring mostly young activists together to listen to good music and to discuss political themes. The most recent concert, titled “Too Punk to Trump,” brought folks together to say in one unified voice #NotMyPresident.
Speakers included, State Representative Bruce Franks (78th District), and Bradley Harmon, president of CWA-6355, the Missouri State Workers’ Union.
WES leaders have also engaged community residents with its Four Wards Forward program.
Shuron Jones, the WES Votes coordinator, leads the Four Wards Forward program in WES’s service areas of Wards 8, 9, 15 and 20, where she has trained and mobilized dozens of volunteers to register over 500 new voters, primarily in low-turnout precincts in Wards 8 and 20.
One of WES’s most successful partnerships is with the Painters’ District Council 58 sponsored Advanced Skills Workforce Center (ASWC), a pre-apprenticeship training program specifically targeting women and people of color, and proactively building diversity within the trade.
As part of the partnership, WES teaches four classes per week to ASCW participants.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays WES leaders provide lessons on labor history and political education, focusing on topics like so-called “right-to-work” and “paycheck protection.”
Additionally, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, WES talks with students about their rights on the job, the NLRB and the FLSA. Participants even hold mock contract negotiations.
“This isn’t just about teaching ASWC participants a skill,” Steve Wayland, the director of business development for the Painters’ DC 58, said.
“This is also about making sure they have the political knowledge, the basic understanding of labor history and workers’ rights, so they can become active and engaged members of DC 58 once they graduate the program.”
“This is about building the leaders of tomorrow. We want folks to not only be involved in the union. We want them involved in the community. WES helps make that happen.”
The St. Louis Workers’ Education Society is looking to expand its educational services to as many St. Louis area unions as possible.
Now that WES is an affiliate member of the St. Louis Labor Council, it is initiating a series of meetings with Labor Council President Pat White about potentially expanding its educational programming into other St. Louis area unions and participating with the Labor Council wherever appropriate.
Additionally, the charter application will be sent to the National AFL-CIO, for approval there.
“The Labor Council is always looking for ways to expand the Labor Movement, to add diversity and reach out to the community,” White said. “The St. Louis Workers’ Education Society will help us enhance our work and provide us with opportunities to reach folks who aren’t already in unions. This is a win-win for everybody.”
Al Neal, WES’s director of advocacy and education, said WES is poised to expand.
“Working with the Labor Council, its affiliated unions and constituency groups will open doors, build bridges, and strengthen the Labor Movement and WES,” Neal said. “We’ve all got to work together, especially now with ‘right-to-work.’
“‘United we stand, or divided we fall,’ seems more appropriate now than ever,” Neal concluded.