Washington State Labor Council leaders pass the baton

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Rick Bender and Al Link have fought for Washington workers for 16 years — at the head of the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC). On Jan. 5, they passed the mantle to Jeff Johnson and Lynne Dodson.

WSLC is a state-level body of the AFL-CIO labor union federation. Its leaders are in charge of unifying and mobilizing the clout of 500-plus local unions with a combined membership of 400,000.

Parallels are striking among these four leaders. Early in their tenure at WSLC, President Bender and Secretary-Treasurer Link had to contend with an election sweep by anti-union Republicans; President Johnson and Secretary-Treasurer Dodson begin office facing another Republican sweep. The new leaders are the grandchildren of Pennsylvania coal miners; both are also labor academics and have been anti-war activists. Bender and Link are the sons of labor leaders; both rode the draft to Vietnam.

All four have an enduring belief in unions as an indispensable protection for workers — in the workplace and in politics.

Rick Bender, 61, was a state lawmaker who became a labor leader. His father was school board president, business manager at Cement Masons Local 528, and eventually head of the Seattle Building Trades Council and the King County Labor Council. The younger Bender apprenticed as a cement mason and laborer, and attended University of Washington. In 1966, he drew a low draft number, and enlisted voluntarily. He spent time at the U.S. Army’s Long Binh supply depot in Vietnam, and returned home in 1972. That year, he was recruited to run for state house, and beat a three-term Republican incumbent by 149 votes. Thus began a legislative career that lasted until 1991.

In 1987, by then a state senator, Bender was approached to run for secretary-treasurer of the Seattle Building Trades Council, the job his father had once held; he outpolled three others to win the office. His rise within organized labor culminated in his 1993 election as WSLC president.

Al Link, 67, got his start in labor in 1961, when he went to work at the Kaiser Aluminum smelter north of Spokane. His father worked there, and had been president of Steelworkers Local 329. Like Bender, Link had volunteered from an early age on door-to-door union political campaigns: His father was Spokane Democratic Party chairman, and his mother was political director of the Spokane Labor Council. Link was drafted and spent 1967 and 1968 in Vietnam in an army engineering group. He returned to the Kaiser mill, became active in the union, and served many terms as vice president before running for president in 1992. Link became WSLC secretary-treasurer in 1994.

Of their years together at WSLC, both Bender and Link say the high point was 1993, when the union movement won numerous victories in the State Legislature — such as beefed-up workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits, and expanded rights for public employees to unionize. The low point came the following year, when Republicans swept to power at the state and national levels. That 1994 election ended the 30-year career of a labor ally — Eastern Washington Congressman Tom Foley, who was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Still, WSLC helped return Democrats to power in Olympia a few years later, and won some victories at the ballot box, most notably a 1998 measure that raised the minimum wage and tied future increases to the consumer price index. That made Washington the first state to index annual minimum wage increases to inflation; 10 other states have followed, including Oregon.

A retirement party to honor Bender and Link will be held Jan. 8 at the Seattle Airport Doubletree Hotel. Their successors were sworn in Jan. 5.

Jeff Johnson, 59, has been on the WSLC staff for 24 years. He first taught labor economics and labor history to apprentices at IBEW Local 3 in New York, after earning a master’s degree in political economics from the New School of Social Research. Then he spent two years as a labor studies professor at the State University of New York-Empire State College. He moved to Olympia and went to work for WSLC as research and organizing director and lobbyist, battling in the State Capitol to promote and defend workers’ rights. In 1988, he helped write a ballot measure that raised the minimum wage from $2.30 to $4.25 and extended it to farm workers. And in 1998, he laid the groundwork for the ballot measure that indexed the minimum wage to inflation. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 workers get a raise every year because of it.

Lynne Dodson, 49, is new to WSLC. A psychology professor at Seattle Central Community College, Dodson decided in 1997 to get involved with her union, American Federation of Teachers Local 1789, after she saw a co-worker retire after 25 years with nothing but an “emeritus” award. Dodson grew up in Inchelium, Washington, on the Colville Indian Reservation, where her mother, a teacher, had been active in her union. Dodson, WSLC’s first female executive officer, has a passion for social justice and a PhD in social welfare from the University of Washington.

President Johnson and Secretary-Treasurer Dodson have an ambitious vision for WSLC. They want to build up the capacity to educate members, to counter the ideology that put Wall Street first and left working America behind. They want to make organized labor more appealing to younger workers, rebuild labor’s communications infrastructure, and rekindle a union culture based on the principle of solidarity. And they want to strengthen labor’s alliance with other movements, showing Washingtonians that unions aren’t just about defending their own members — they’re about building power to win economic and social justice for all working people.

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