Questions for Washington AFL-CIO’s Jeff Johnson

Jeff Johnson

Washington’s top labor leader, Jeff Johnson, 67, is retiring Jan. 4 after a 32-year career at the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC), a federation of 600 local unions with over 400,000 members (and the last eight years as its president). Interviewed by Labor Press senior staff reporter Don McIntosh by phone Dec. 13, he spoke candidly about racism in the union movement, and about the heartbreak he felt when – after years of work on Clean Energy Jobs measure I-631 – he couldn’t get two-thirds of WSLC affiliates to endorse it.

What will you miss about the job?

First, the people. It has been such an honor and privilege to work in the labor movement for 40 years. The second is being part of the bridge building between labor and community. That’s our way out. That’s our solution to being able to counteract massive income and wealth inequality. That’s our answer to climate justice. In my experience in the labor movement, for as much as we as labor leaders feel like we have a certain degree of economic and political power, our voices alone aren’t strong enough to make the types of progressive changes that we need to address the existential crises we face. Putting labor and community together, we do have a strong enough voice. 

When you talk about bridge building, are you talking about formal coalitions?

Yeah, at the state council here historically we have been really focused on coalition building. Since I took over the presidency, we’ve done more than that. We have included community in our visioning processes. We play roles that vary from leadership to following, and we’ve built deep alliances. So for example the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy has about 200 organizations in it, but at the core of it is labor, environment, and communities of color and tribes. And we’ve worked four years in that alliance, building an equity-based solution to climate justice. We just ran Initiative 1631. We lost the initiative — up against a barrage of $31.5 million put in primarily by the fossil fuel industry. But we won in terms of putting forth a value- and equity-based solution to the transition away from fossil fuels. We put some real legs around high quality labor standards for the clean energy economy, as well as a just transitions for fossil fuel workers and the community they live in. So we’re really proud of that work, and that’s the work we need to continue to do.

There’s no dancing around it: You were very involved in the crafting of I-1631 and building the coalition you described as four years of relationship building. So what was it like to not be able to get the two-thirds necessary for your own organization to be fully part of it?

That was a bit of a heartbreak. We were a victim of circumstances, part of which was that the building trades [unions], who actively organized against endorsement, did it in a fairly surreptitious manner. We had passed several path-breaking resolutions unanimously at previous state labor council conventions, with all the building trades present. We took both of those resolutions, they were modified, and one passed the national AFL-CIO convention in St. Louis a year ago October. Granted, it didn’t go as far as ours, but nonetheless it was history for the national AFL-CIO, and it came off our resolution. Given that, a year ago in December, we built a $150,000 contribution into our 2018 budget for what would become I-1631 (It didn’t have a number at the time.) And we ran that by our budget committee and then took it to our Executive Board in February. And I’ve got eight building trades folks on my Executive Board of 29 people, and they passed the budget. Plus, for four years I had a climate and jobs caucus where I had a cross section of labor union leaders attend and design the language for I-1631. Granted, the building trades were sporadic participants, and the leader of the state building trades [Lee Nugent] came once and never came again. It was unfortunate that he did that, and I think it was a real disservice to the trades. So all of that led me to believe it was pretty much a slam dunk that we’d get the two-thirds vote for this. Unfortunately our COPE convention was May 19, about 10 or 12 days before the Janus decision was announced, so most of our public employee unions were back in DC for training. Most of our AFSCME contingent, most of our AFT contingent, were gone. Had they been at the COPE [political endorsement] convention, we would have had the necessary two-thirds.

Are you saying the public sector unions were unrepresented at the COPE convention?

They had skeletal crews there.

But wouldn’t they be able to vote the strength of the whole membership?

Not if you come down to a roll-call vote. Each local has to be present. We have very strict rules in our constitution. Had they been present, slam dunk: We would have had two-thirds. AFSCME had about a quarter of its locals there. AFT had even less. So we managed to get 60.3 percent of the vote, but that fell shy of the two-thirds.

And was there no way to arrange another session where the public sector membership could be properly represented?

So here’s the dilemma that I was faced with as a leader, and I made a particular choice: Coming out of the COPE convention, I sorted through where we had fallen short and talked with those leaders. If we ran this vote again in July at our summer convention, would they stand tall with us? And the answer was yes. But I also looked at the divisions that were being created within the labor movement. Our building trades were kind of dug in the sand in opposition.

A number of them actually ended up being listed as opponents on the anti-1631 web site.

Exactly, and the irony is that with the investment standards we built into the initiative, money would have been doled out by way of grant process and you had to meet quality labor standards to get the grants, so things like paying prevailing wages, apprenticeship utilization, project labor agreements, domestic sourcing — all of these union labor standards — were built into the initiative. So it was kind of crazy that they were against the initiative.

Why do you think they opposed it?

I think there were a couple of reasons. I think the building trades were sold a false bill of goods for the previous four years that the clean energy economy would not provide as many jobs as the fossil fuel industry would. And they had signed on the dotted line for these seven fossil fuel export terminals that had been proposed for Washington or Oregon state. Now what was seen subsequently is that every one of those fossil fuel export terminals has been turned down. They have not passed muster, either environmentally or because the community rose up against them. But they had put their eggs in that basket. But secondly, the Laborers union in particular made the argument that a carbon fee or carbon tax was the equivalent of a gas tax, and that if it passed, it would crowd out funding for transportation projects. Now I understand the logic of their argument, and I totally disagree with it. I actually think the oil industry disagreed with it, our governor disagreed with it, many of our legislators disagreed with it. But they [the Laborers] believed it and they pressed it with their members. The argument they made was: If gas prices went up 15 cents a gallon, it would create undue hardship on their members. And unfortunately in an age where income inequality is so great, where the Trump administration gave massive tax breaks to the wealthy, no matter how middle income you might be, you’re pretty tax sensitive, and so the argument resonated.

Were there no building trades unions that were not opposed to I-1631, or that were for I-1631?

There were building trades locals, particularly in IBEW, that had participated in the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy and had signed the values statements, but then went backwards. There were utility unions that were supportive.

Is there anything you’re not going to miss about the job?

The things you don’t miss are the inter-union squabbles over jurisdiction, when 90 percent of the workforce is unorganized. That stuff you just pull your hair out over. I’m not going to miss the squabbling about: “Are we a social movement versus strictly a wages-hours-and-working conditions movement?” That stuff is old. I’ve been a progressive union member since the 1970s coming out of New York City. In my estimation we resolved that issue 40 years ago: We’re a social movement. That doesn’t mean we don’t care for and advocate for our own members every day of our lives. It’s just that we do it in a larger context.

Your career in the labor movement began with teaching labor economics at Empire State in the State University of New York system. How did you get there?

I went to college because my mother forced me to. I was working as a cabinet maker in high school. I loved the work. But I was facing an ultimatum. So I went to college. It was the late ‘60s, early ’70s. I went to college [at Georgetown University] in DC and got radicalized pretty quickly, trying to sort through the meaning of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, and that led me to the study of economics and study of political economy. And through that work and living in the inner city in DC, I decided I needed to get a better handle on economics. I chose to do graduate school at the New School for Social Research in New York City.  I enjoyed the studies, but I worked full time, drove a truck for a moving company. And I got more and more interested in the labor movement. I volunteered for a rank-and-file leader of the Transport Workers Union who was running for office against the then-incumbent leader who’d been in office for quite some time. It was [at the time of] the first big New York City transit strike in a couple decades. I played guitar, so along with a couple organizers we’d go down into the subway system and leaflet. I’d play music, and my cohorts would leaflet passengers informing them of the issues behind the strike, and asking them not to put their attention toward the strikers but toward the city for a settlement. Then I saw there was an opening for a position teaching labor economics at the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies, which was a brilliant program negotiated by [IBEW Local 3 leader] Van Arsdale with the State University of New York so that all IBEW Local 3’s apprentices, as they went through their formal apprenticeship program, they also were required to get an associates degree in labor studies. I got to teach in that program for three years. Then they hired me full time in the full program, which catered to union members across the labor movement. At one point I even had Morty Bahr, [who later became] the president of CWA, in one of my classes. And in my first classes were the very first African American and female apprentices after the big affirmative action lawsuit in the ‘70s. It was a pretty heady time.

You’ve been WSLC president eight years. Looking back, what are you most proud of?

I think what I’m most proud of is that we made deep and meaningful relationships with community. We went well past the “rent-a-collar” or “use” community for various organizing victories, and [instead] really developed deep working relationships with the broader community. Adding those voices to union voices made us so much more powerful. Like the struggle of farmworkers in our state: We’ve had two home grown farmworker movements, one that transitioned into the United Farm Workers, and the other that still is small and struggling but is affiliated with our council. Whether working with farmworkers or the climate justice movement, we were able to bring not just unions but whole communities’ infrastructure to these various fights. And we’ve been successful on minimum wage, on paid safe and sick leave, on family leave, we’ve ben successful on bargaining contracts for farmworkers who live outside [the jurisdiction] of the National Labor Relations Act. We built a climate justice movement. We had over 7,000 volunteers who were not only collecting signatures but educating their neighbors on climate justice issues. And [we built] relationships with tribes we’ve never had before, where we built real policy language into the initiative that gave tribes more security around established and historical treaty lands. These are such meaningful things. I think this is how we build the movement to get voice for workers ultimately in determining what our future economy looks like. It’s a long struggle, but it’s worth every step that we take.

What role does a state AFL-CIO like the Washington State Labor Council play within the union movement?

We’re seen as the voice of labor in the state. We take on the macro level issues. Obviously we support our affiliates in all their individual issues. We help them with organizing efforts. With our affiliates and community partners, we developed a vision of pushing the labor movement forward. So for example, the climate justice stuff: We pushed hard on that. But the other huge initiative we took on is addressing racism in the labor movement and the wider society. Since 2013, we’ve pulled together 25 to 30 leaders from the labor movement and did deep-dive discussions around systemic racism — how it pervades the labor movement, how it shows up in contract language inadvertently. We hired Bill Fletcher, noted national labor scholar and author, to lead us through these discussions. We developed very serious train-the-trainer trainings on dealing with racism. And we have had probably three dozen unions — their presidents and organizers — participate in these trainings. We held a racial justice summit last September. We had 140 leaders come to it. And coming out of that we’ve created several workgroups on working on narrative language and working on a toolkit for unions to assess how they’re dealing with the issue, what kinds of opportunities are created for members of color. So it’s those types of issues that as a state fed we proudly take on even though it upsets some labor leaders and makes some feel uncomfortable. That’s not our intent, but our intent is to say to our unions: If we’re not talking to our members about real issues and providing them with real information, then they’re going to get that information somewhere else. And it’s not a mystery that the Friedrichs case came up the line, or the Janus decision. Apart from all the money the Koch brothers and the Waltons [put into those cases], we had not done as good a job talking to our members over the past couple decades as we needed to. And the silver lining of Janus is that particularly in the public employee sector in the last several years, we’ve been doing tens of thousands of one-on-one conversations with members and finding out that when you do that, more often than not, members like to be heard and like what the union provides. And that’s how you build a stronger labor and civil rights movement.

Do you think Washington’s labor movement is stronger or less strong than it was 24 years ago?

It’s much stronger and bigger. Absolutely. I mean, there was a time in Washington state history in the mid-‘50s where we actually had 55 percent of the work force organized. I really wouldn’t know what that meant on a daily basis here — in 1955 I was four years old and lived on the East Coast. I presume it meant that we were fairly powerful. But relative to when I started in this movement in this state in 1986, we are much stronger, more powerful. We have a much stronger social and economic vision than we did before, and we have more leaders that are willing to take the risks necessary to lead a movement, and fewer leaders that are just worried about maintaining their positions in office.

What do you think unions need to do differently to be able to fulfill their mission?

I think we need a certain amount of humility. You know, we need to talk up what we provide because we truly do provide that voice and social safety net for workers in the workplace as well as in the halls of power. But we also have to have some humility. We can’t do it all ourselves. In fact, when we try to do that, more often than not we lose. We’ve got to bring other parts of the community into the struggle and work together with them and sometimes put their issues at the forefront, with ours perhaps following behind, because we’ve got to prove ourselves to be valued partners. I am thoroughly convinced from my study of history and my participation in this movement that that’s how real economic, social, racial and climate justice is made. When we work together, we can do amazing things. And when you do that, there’s less of an ability of your opponent to divide and conquer you. 

What changes have you seen in the labor movement over the the time you’ve been engaged?

What has been most impressive is that from our progressive unions I see more leadership development going on now than ever before in the movement. I think there was a time when leaders were afraid of leadership development, because they were afraid they were training people to take over their jobs. I see much less of that today. I see a desire on the part of progressive union leaders if we’re going to move the ball significantly we have to train as many leaders as possible. We have to embrace them, embrace their views, and we have to make those bridges to community. That’s the biggest difference I see, and I think that gives us more foundational power than we’ve had before. I think it creates more respect and value from those not in the labor movement towards unions.

What are some of the biggest improvements for working people, in terms of laws passed? Obviously one of the biggest roles the Washington State Labor Council plays is coordinating union political efforts and getting legislation passed if they can. So what are some of things that have most improved improved the lives of working people in Washington that you’ve been involved in?

We passed three initiatives that took our state minimum wage from $2.30 an hour up to, at this point, $12 an hour, and rising to $13.50 on the state level. We passed $15 minimum wages in Seatac and Seattle. We passed paid safe and sick leave statewide through an initiative which covers over a million workers that now have paid sick leave that they never had before. We covered farmworkers under workers compensation, unemployment insurance, minimum wage, child labor standards, and health and safety standards that they had never been covered under before. We helped negotiate and oversee two collective bargaining agreements representing farmworkers, one of the east side of the state and one on the west side of the state. We’ve increased collective bargaining rights for over a quarter of a million workers in our state over the last two decade — everything from state employees (prior to 2003 they were not covered under collective bargaining law) to teaching and research assistants at the university, part time faculty at the community and technical colleges, port officials, interpreters. We’ve vastly expanded collective bargaining rights. For the building trades we passed numerous transportation packages — in 2015 the largest in the history of our state. We passed Sound Transit 3, which was another generational job-creating mass transit package for building trades workers. We passed a law that allows prevailing wages to be set by collective bargaining unit standards rather than a wage survey for all employers. We passed apprenticeship utilization standards. We passed arguably one of the best family leave laws in the country.

That does sound like a pretty impressive list. I have had the impression that it’s been very tough going in recent years. Washington is considered a blue state, but it seems like Democrats have had a hard time getting legislation passed that you guys are behind. If you agree, why do you think that is?

You’re right. In 2013, we had control of the governor’s house, the house and the senate. However in the senate, two Democratic senators jumped ship, kept their democratic title, but went over to the Republicans and created what they called the Majority Coalition Caucus. So for five years, we had a divided legislature where it was really tough going. What was really hard for us at the state labor council — as the lead political body in the state for labor — was trying to get labor volunteers out to elect Democrats in the face of two Democrats jumping ship, in the face of really good legislation not getting passed and really bad legislation passing in the Senate attacking us. Folks were less and less motivated to go out and volunteer politically. So we ran campaign after campaign and we lost and we lost. And part of that was the backdrop of the 2008 recession and the slow recovery for working folks. Finally in 2017 we had a special election and elected a Democrat to the state senate — which gave us functional control of the senate — and we passed a floodgate of bills: a whole series of civil liberties bills, everything from ban the box to ending the debt-to-prison cycle. We passed a state voting rights act, same-day registration, automatic voter registration on license renewal, prevailing wage based on collective bargaining. We passed a series of anti-Janus bills, the most important of which was giving public sector unions the right to address new employees in an orientation session; we had never had that right before. So the floodgates were opened, and this year we increased our majorities in the house by seven members, two in the senate. So we have another very large agenda that we stand to pass.

So you’re leaving at a time when you’re potentially on a roll. How does Washington rate in terms of tax fairness – the idea that those who are able to pay pay the most?

[Groans.] Terrible. Citizens for Tax Justice, in their rankings, we’re down at the bottom of the list. We have one of the most regressive tax systems in the country, because we rely a whole lot on sales tax, business and occupation taxes. We have no income tax. We have no capital gains tax. And so poor and middle income folks pay heavily in sales tax and various fees, licenses and whatnot. And in all honesty, we also have somewhere in the neighborhood of 650 to 750 tax exemptions in our structure, many of which were passed by Democrats. So we continue to have a structural budget deficit, which I think is about $3 billion going into 2019. I think we can pass a capital gains tax. I don’t think they’ll be as ambitious as they need to be. We have so many wealthy people in our state that could well afford to pay. I’m reminded of a speech that Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave when he was proposing an income tax, and coming out of the wealthy elite class as he did, he heard many arguments from friends that said if you do this, we’re going to leave the country. And basically his response was: Well, go ahead. In many respects, our financial system and our system of commonwealth benefits are broken in this state: We need significantly more revenue to meet the basic needs of people and to build the infrastructure we need to fight climate disaster, and the infrastructure we need just to create jobs for people. And the truth is I’m not advocating taxing the working person more; I think we are overtaxed. But there are wealthy folks that have the means to pay this, and corporations that should feel some pride in paying that revenue.

Suppose you found a bottle and freed a genie who gave you three wishes. What would you wish for?

For our state? For our labor movement?

However you want to interpret it.

I think I would wish for working people and their community allies having real voice in setting the economic decisions that determine what our economy and our communities look like. That would be my first wish – that we had control, decision making ability. Second, I would wish that we would stop arguing over the transition away from fossil fuels and simply do it by putting in place real “just transition” strategies, and real commonwealth benefits in place. So that it’s not a zero sum game, so it’s not a question of some workers winning and some workers losing. So that instead of investing in pumping every barrel of oil and every cubic foot of natural gas that we can get out of the ground, we’re investing in long-term care, we’re investing in education and health care, and building up our communities in ways that create good high paying union jobs. Workers aren’t low-wage workers because they work in home care; they’re low wage workers because home care is not valued in our society to the level it should be. So those are two wishes. I’m not sure what the third would be. I think if we can do the first two, we’re in a pretty good place.

Do you have any advice for other leaders in the labor movement?

One, be humble. Two, listen — not just to union leaders but to community leaders. And three, be bold; don’t be timid. We can not take action based on the lowest common denominator. If you’re trying to make everyone happy, you’re not doing a damn thing.

If you had just one message for the rank-and-file union member, what would it be?

Your union is your best investment for a good life and security for your family and your community. Don’t take it for granted. Get involved. Speak up, disagree when you need to disagree, but get involved and stay involved.

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