By SHERI GASSAWAY
Merri Berry, a 41-year member of UFCW Local 655, will serve as the first female state-level officer of the Missouri AFL-CIO when she is sworn in as its new secretary-treasurer on July 1.
Berry, who had been serving as the Federation’s political director since 2015, was elected to the post on May 19. She will replace IBEW Local 1’s Jake Hummel in the position. He was elected to lead the Missouri AFL-CIO when out-going President Mike Louis retires on June 30.
“I’m humbled and honored and plan on working really hard for the Federation and the Missouri Labor Movement,” Berry said, noting that she was looking forward to working with Hummel in a new role. “Mike has been a great leader who has helped us tremendously, and he will be missed.”
As soon as the Missouri AFL-CIO made the announcement that it had unanimously elected Hummel and Berry as president and secretary-treasurer respectively, well wishes began pouring in from local Labor leaders.
Gina Walsh, who was the first female president of the Missouri Building & Construction Trades Council and the first woman to go through the Heat & Frost Insulators Local 1 apprenticeship program, said she was elated to see another woman elected to a position of Labor leadership in the state.
‘THRILLED FOR HER’
“I’m just thrilled for her,” said Walsh, who soon will be stepping down from the Missouri Senate’s 13th District serving two terms. “I’m over the moon and I would do cartwheels uphill if I could. Merri is one of the hardest working, grassroots worker bees in the Labor Movement, and she has never asked for accolades or notoriety.”
Jessica Podhola, president of the Greater Kansas City Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) and governmental affairs director for IUPAT District Council 3, agreed saying she was both proud and excited for the future of the Missouri Labor.
‘HARDEST WORKING LABOR LEADERS’
“Merri is one of the hardest working leaders in the Missouri Labor Movement regardless of gender,” said Podhola, who is also a member of Heartland Women in Trades. “It’s way past time that we had a female-elected leader at the state level, and she is so deserving of the honor.”
Kim Cook Bell, president of St. Louis CLUW and a member of UAW Local 2250, congratulated both Hummel and Berry on Facebook.
“I’m excited to support their leadership roles with the Missouri AFL-CIO,” Cook Bell wrote. “These two are ready to face the challenge! And a special round of applause to Merri for being the first woman secretary-treasurer.”
Beth Barton, president of Missouri Women in Trades and a member of Carpenters Local 1596, said Berry has been a tireless advocate for all working Americans, including LGQTB and other diverse groups.
“We’re proud of Merri’s appointment and know she will continue to do great work on behalf of the entire working community,” she said.
Berry began her UFCW Local 655 career at Schnucks as an associate in 1979. She comes from a long line of family who have been or currently are members of Local 655, including her mom, dad, aunt, husband, two sons and daughter.
When she transferred to the Des Peres location, she became a union shop steward working with then UFCW Local 655 representatives Dave Cook (now president of the union local) and Randy Charboneau.
INTO THE LEADERSHIP REALM
“I credit Dave and Randy for bringing me into the leadership realm and teaching me the ropes,” she said. “I couldn’t be more grateful for their leadership, vision and help.”
Berry began working out of the UFCW 655 union hall after having surgery in 2003 – the same year the union led its first strike against the three major union food chains, lasting 25 days and won a fair contract for its members.
At the time, she was helping prepare labor practice charges for the strike under the direction of then-Local 655 President Bob Kelley. Kelley later hired Berry as an organizer for the local and she later served as its political director.
GOAL: HELP WOMEN SUCCEED
As the Missouri AFL-CIO’s first female officer, Berry says one of her goals is to help other women succeed in the Labor Movement.
“I’m hoping to strengthen women’s roles in the political process and to get women more involved in their unions and Labor groups,” she said. “We don’t have nearly enough female leadership, and we need to be visible to the younger generation.”
She urged female union members interested in Labor leadership positions to reach out to the various women’s Labor groups for help and to become more active in their local unions.
MANY GREAT MISSOURI WOMEN LABOR GROUPS
“We have so many great women’s groups in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas with excellent leaders who are more than willing to introduce women to the Labor Movement and help them succeed,” she said.
Among the groups Berry hailed included, the St. Louis and Greater Kansas City chapters of CLUW and as well as Missouri Women in Trades and Heartland Women in Trades. All four groups can be found on Facebook.