When April Sims got a union job as a child support enforcement officer two decades ago, she was a high school dropout and single mom. She got involved in her union, and over time that became her life’s work, In January, she became her state’s top labor leader, president of the Washington State Labor Council. She shared some of her story with the Labor Press.
By DON McINTOSH
How did you first get involved in the union movement?
My mom’s union job is what got our family off of welfare and gave her economic dignity for the first time in her life. I was raised by a single mother of three kids. And we struggled, like most folks do. She worked menial jobs and jobs that didn’t give her dignity or pay her enough to take care of her family. And so we were on and off welfare for most of my childhood until she got a union job, a job out at Western State Hospital. That gave her real economic dignity. I like to say we went from free lunch to reduced lunch. She didn’t make a lot of money, but there was something really transformative about knowing that she had a job she could count on, and a paycheck she could count on, on the 10th and the 25th of every month, so she could plan. I knew from an early age the union difference, just because that was my lived experience. So when I got an opportunity to join a union, it was pretty natural for me. But I did, and just slowly got involved. I think my leadership journey probably matches a lot of folks’ leadership journey. You show up to a local meeting. You come to the next meeting. You start getting involved. Eventually that led me to a job working for my union. I come out of AFSCME Council 28.
Before we leave your mom then, what is Western State Hospital and what did she do there?
Western State Hospital is a state-run mental health facility, and my mom was a mental health technician. And then AFSCME fought for reclassification of some of the workers’ positions and she was reclassified as a psychiatrical security attendant. So she worked with the criminally insane.
And what was her local?
She was WFSE (Washington Federation of State Employees) Local 793.
Is that where you ended up going to work as well?
That was my first union job, yes. At Western State Hospital, a member of WFSE 793.
What year was that, and what did you do?
That was in 2002. And I was a ward clerk.
So in a former life, I was a curriculum developer for FlightSafety Boeing, and after 911 I got laid off and I was pregnant with my youngest daughter. A friend told me that I should apply for a job with the state. You never have to worry about getting laid off and the benefits are good. And I remembered that it WAS good benefits because it was a good union job.
So curriculum developer, that was non union?
That was non union.
How old were you then in 2002 when you went to work for the state hospital?
And what is a ward clerk?
A ward clerk is like the support staff position. I checked the mail. I did the filing. You know, it was just an office support position.
But you were union represented, and was that the same local as your mom?
Yeah. And in fact, I’m pretty sure I got the job out there because the person that hired me knew what a hard worker my mom was.
You make it sound very matter of fact, like you went to a meeting and another meeting and so forth. But you know, not everybody gets involved. Not everybody goes to meetings. So why do you think that you decided that becoming involved in your union was something you wanted to do?
That’s a really good question. I remember the shop steward at my workplace when he first came. I left Western State Hospital a couple months later and went to work as a child support enforcement officer for DSHS (Department of Social and Health Services) and became a member of Local 53. I was one of only six union members in the office at the time. It was an open shop. It was before state employees had full-scale collective bargaining. And I always say I think the leader in my workplace was trained in leadership development. And he saw leadership in me long before I saw it in myself. When he invited me to my first local meeting, I remember saying, ‘Yeah, sure, I’d love to go. I’d love to learn more about the union, and when is it?’ And he said it’s seven o’clock on Wednesday, downtown Puyallup. And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m not gonna make it. I gotta get my kids from daycare. I gotta make dinner.’ You know, seven o’clock on a Wednesday evening is a pretty tough lift when you’ve got three small kids. But he kept asking me and finally, we were dealing with this workplace safety issue. And he came to me and he said, you know, we’re going to ask our local to support us and if you come to this meeting, your vote could really make a difference. So I came to that first meeting, and I was able to vote on a workplace safety issue that was really important to me, and secure the support of our local to fight for the workplace safety improvements that we wanted. And I came back to the next meeting after that.
Do you remember what the issue was?
Yeah, our Child Support Enforcement office was the only office in the state that did not have safety protocols in place similar to the other offices. So we didn’t have what we later called a blue light process where if you had an angry person come into the office, or someone who was violent, like a process to manage that. We didn’t have plexiglass, no protections. I mean, we didn’t even have signs posted letting folks know that it was a felony offense to threaten a public sector employee. And we were dealing with people’s finances. The division of child support would often lien licenses and attach money out of folks’ financial accounts.
So people would get pretty upset.
Yeah, they’s come in pretty upset.
By people I’m guessing mostly men, fathers.
Surprisingly, it was not gender specific, or not like you’d expect. The way that I grew up, raised by a single mom, I had all these assumptions about who did and didn’t pay child support and all the reasons why. And I learned that the system is really unfair, and that everyone has a story and everyone’s story is compelling. And so the folks that didn’t pay their child support was not consistent with the assumptions that I had based on the way that I grew up.
But going back to your start, you were briefly a member of WFSE Local 793, like just a few months at the hospital, and then you went to work as a child support enforcement specialist and became a member of WFSE Local 53?
Child support enforcement officer.
How long were you there?
I was there for almost four years.
So that’s where you became an active union member?
Kept going to meetings. Did they make you do any volunteer work or draft you to be an officer? What happened next?
I did tons of volunteer work. I came out on time loss as a volunteer member organizer talking to union members in Washington state. And sometimes they’d send me to other states to help with organizing drives. I became the chair of our organizing committee for our local, and was elected to our statewide executive board.
Within four years of being a member you were on the statewide executive board?
There must be a reason. Was there something they saw in you?
I think they saw leadership in me. I have to think about that, whether or not I got specific feedback. I remember someone recruited me and just told me they thought it would be great on the executive board and convinced me to run and I did and then shortly thereafter, I was hired on as staff.
You grew up in Tacoma and you still live there today. What do you love about Tacoma?
Set featured imageTacoma is just a working class town. I like to call Tacoma “Seattle’s gritty little sister.” There are strong communities. You know, it’s home. I know my way around. There’s just something different about the way a community comes together when it’s a working class town, I think.
And then did you go to college also?
No. Well, I do have some college. But I was a teenage mom, and a high school dropout. And it took me a couple of years to go back to school and earn my diploma. I did that through the Running Start program through Bates Technical College. And then I was in school for my degree in Workforce Education and Development (which is how I got the job at at FlightSafety Boeing doing curriculum development) when I got pregnant with my daughter. And I just never went back. I never finished.
It doesn’t seem to have kept you back.
Well, I like to think that you know, it is because my union invested in me. And I think that is the unparalleled power and potential of the labor movement. To elevate us — not just lift families out of poverty, but to elevate the whole worker, the whole person.
We shouldn’t skip over the 20 years or so that you worked on staff. You were a rank and file member for four years, and then ended up going and working in a political and legislative capacity first for WFSE and later for Washington State Labor Council. You know, it’s always a team effort, but is there something that you personally feel like you’re most proud of having achieved for Washington workers?
There are so many things that I think we’ve been able to win on here in Washington state. I was just reflecting on the warehouse bill that just passed and the ergonomics bill that just passed which will improve the lives for all workers, not just workers that have the privilege of being represented by a union. When I first started at the state labor council in 2015, [President] Jeff Johnson put me in charge of our minimum wage and paid sick leave campaign. I had the opportunity to lead that effort. We ran the largest volunteer signature gathering effort in the state to put that initiative on the ballot in 2016. I’m incredibly proud of that work. I think about the fact that my mom didn’t have sick leave before she had the opportunity to join the union. I remember the time we all got sick, and she missed six days of work, because you know, kids don’t get sick all at once but rather back to back to back. And she didn’t have good sick leave, so she didn’t get paid. She couldn’t pay the rent. And I remember we were homeless for a while and had to go back on welfare. So I think about the impact that the minimum wage and paid sick leave initiative had on so many families, and the impact that it still has, because the minimum wage is indexed to the CPI. Every time the minimum wage goes up I think how amazing it is that the work we did in 2016 still has impacts today. And I love to think about what work we will be doing tomorrow that will have impact five years from now.
Washington is the third most unionized state in the United States, is that right? But it’s not what anybody would call a workers’ utopia yet. If you could get state legislative leaders to pass three laws that would make the biggest impact, what would they be?
Oh wow, this is such a great question. I’m sure our policy team has ideas, but a couple of things immediately come to mind. We need policies now that will help us build out this post-carbon economy and policies that will ensure that this next round of jobs are good union jobs with strong labor standards, safety protections. So that’s what’s top of mind for me right now — figuring out what are the policies we need that will ensure that as we’re investing in hydrogen and offshore wind and even EV battery production, that we are laying the groundwork that will allow workers in those industries and in those sectors to organize and form a union. And to make sure that our manufacturing isn’t just high domestic content, but is high domestic content that’s tied to labor protections and labor standards.
I think the other thing is figuring out the solution for childcare. So many families don’t have access to affordable childcare. And not just because it’s so expensive, but because it is often not available during the times and in the locations where workers need them the most. You know, not everybody works a nine-to-five Monday through Friday. And not everyone can afford to live where they work. So with the longer commute times and the the varying hours, many workers find themselves in a childcare desert. And I think that our government has to treat childcare like infrastructure, and invest in childcare solutions in the same way we invest in other types of infrastructure like transportation. The solution around that, I think, will require lots of stakeholders. There’s not just one solution. But I think policies that make childcare accessible and affordable for workers are definitely top of mind. And you only asked for three, but …
Well, I don’t know. Maybe this is one of those things where if you keep rubbing the lamp, maybe the genie keeps coming back. I don’t know.
Yeah, I love that. You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about workplace violence and how workplace violence is an issue that impacts everyone and what are the solutions to make sure that workers and our communities are safe in the places where we gather.
Are we hearing the early signs of the 2024 or 2025 legislative agenda here, or is this just you thinking ahead?
Well, this is just me thinking ahead. But we ARE going through a strategic planning process right now. And we have been doing a lot of stakeholdering, and one on one interviews with our affiliates, our board, community partners. You know, I think that Cherika [Carter, WSLC Secretary Treasurer] and I have lots of ideas. I have tons of ideas. I think one or two are good. Three or four are decent, and the rest are probably lacking for execution or creativity. But with the help of our board, and the affiliated unions of the state labor council, I think we will come up with the strategic plan and the priorities for our work over the next four years.
Well, that sounds exciting. I’ll look forward to hearing more about it. I have a few more questions for you. I was wondering what you think about this moment that we’re in. Polls say that union approval is at the highest level in half a century, but we’ve also got like 6% of private sector workers in a union, the lowest percentage in who knows how long. And we’re starting to see some increase in union activity as measured by National Labor Relations Board election activity, but really not enough to change that trajectory. And so I just want to know what your thinking is: Why is that, and is there something that unions should be doing differently to take advantage of this moment?
I love this question, because organizing is what we’re going to be talking about — how the Washington State Labor Council builds the infrastructure to support the organizing efforts that we’re seeing. What I think is that we’re witnessing a worker revolution. I think we were on the cusp of this before COVID, but COVID has really highlighted the need for workers to have a voice and some say in what happens to them at the workplace. You know, there is no city in this country in which you can work full time at the minimum wage and be able to afford a place to live or a two bedroom apartment, I read recently. At the national level there are efforts to pass the PRO Act — the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. As long as we have an ideologically divided Congress, that’s going to be a challenge. I do think there are things that can happen in terms of changing some of the the rules with the NLRB and holding some of these mega corporations accountable for their union busting tactics. That would certainly make it easier for workers to organize. But what I know for sure is that workers exercised their voice and found a way to come together and organize long before there were laws on the books giving them the right to do so. And if these mega corporations and these greedy billionaires don’t want a real worker revolution, they’re going to have to make some concessions. They are going to have to listen to the workers because the workers will demand to be heard. I mean, you know, this idea that folks just don’t want to work — this narrative that’s being spread by the media — is just the first wave of what I think a lot of corporations are witnessing. Workers are tired of struggling and they’re tired of not having the dignity that comes from working hard and making enough money to take care of their families. So workers will continue to lead the way no matter what the laws say.
Do you have any sort of message in particular for the unionists in southwest Washington? I think sometimes Clark County can feel sort of remote from the big population centers of the Puget Sound and Seattle. Do you have an agenda to bring in union folks from more out of the way areas?
There’s two things that come up for me. I think the first is that despite what folks would have you believe, organized labor is still a place of unity. There are politicians that will use coded language designed to divide us like urban versus rural, public versus private or liberal versus conservative, but organized labor is still that one place where folks come together across race and place and ideology and ability, gender and sexuality for a united cause. That is still the labor movement. And we are really focused on rural economic development as a way to make sure we are engaging union members who are outside of what folks would call the I-5 bubble or the Puget Sound bubble, the Seattle-centric hub. I think the way that we do that is through building out jobs in the post carbon economy. If we start talking about investments in offshore wind, this gives us an opportunity to look at communities in southwest Washington to see what investments can be made to make sure that the young people in those communities can stay in their communities, and that they don’t have to look to other towns and cities as opportunities to build economically and support their family. I think that there’s a lot we can do through rural economic development that will develop more unity among union members across the state.
You’ve sometimes talked about there being 630,000 Washington union members, but not not all are in the Washington State Labor Council. Are there significant unaffiliated unions that we might see you courting in the near future that might might come in?
All of them. All of the unions that aren’t currently affiliated, or even currently fully affiliated. My theory of change is rooted in solidarity and my fundamental belief that we are stronger together. The only way that we can counterbalance the corporate solidarity that we’re seeing in terms of these mega corporations and these huge mergers is through true multiracial working class solidarity. So we will be putting together an affiliation committee to reach out to all of the unions that aren’t currently affiliated, or the ones that are under affiliated, to have those conversations and that’s where our strategic plan comes in. Some of it is evangelizing the work of the Washington State Labor Council and evangelizing the potential that exists in the labor movement and making sure that folks see themselves reflected in the vision for the next four years.