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Labor leader leaves legacy of activism
By Mark Zdechlik
Minnesota Public Radio
July 30, 2001
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Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bernard Brommer is retiring this week after 25 years in labor leadership. During Brommer's years of labor activism, union membership has fallen dramatically in Minnesota and throughout the country. But Brommer says he sees a resurgence of interest in unionism - driven largely by economic globalization, which he says is enriching corporate executives at the expense of working people.

Bernie Brommer retires this week as president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, after 10 years in that position. He is recognized by his allies and opponents as an effective and diplomatic spokesman for the cause of unionized labor. However, the number of workers belonging to unions has plunged in the past three decades. See a chart illustrating the trend
(Photo courtesy of Minnesota AFL-CIO)
AS SPOKESMAN FOR 400,000 UNION MEMBERS IN MINNESOTA, Bernard Brommer has been something of a fixture at the state capitol and at union events, from picnics to strikes. Known as a particularly skilled public speaker, he is often called upon to articulate labor's message. Brommer spoke earlier this month in Minneapolis to the national convention of the Communication Workers of America, and hit familiar themes about worker's rights and corporate greed.

"You know how the unbridled pursuit of profit and the other excesses of capitalism are stealing the jobs and undermining the economic security of families and local communities everywhere," said Brommer. "Corporate moguls and financiers are fashioning the world economy for their own enrichment."

Brommer - the first Minnesota AFL-CIO president to come from the public sector - took office in 1990. He became active in organized labor during the early 1970s, leaving a state highway department job for a staff position with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees - AFSCME.

"In 1970 we were on the front end of the Democratic Party, taking control of the state Legislature. Gov. Anderson was elected in '70, the Legislature followed in terms of the Democrats gaining control, and we saw a veritable flood of progressive liberal legislation that was passed that had been bottled up for years," Brommer says.

State lawmakers modernized the minimum wage law, which previously had applied only to women and children in certain industries. They overhauled workers unemployment insurance and compensation. But the crown jewel of the time - according to Brommer - was passage of the Public Employee Labor Relations Act, which gave state workers the right to collective bargaining.

The 1970s were the high point for union strength during Brommer's career. Since then, especially as AFL-CIO president, Brommer concedes much of his time has been spent trying to stop the erosion of previously won gains.

"One of the disappointments I I never had a chance to work with what I would call a progressive governor. "

- Bernard Brommer, outgoing president of Minnesota AFL-CIO
"One of the disappointments that I have - and they are few but disappointments nonetheless - is I never had a chance to work with what I would call a progressive governor," says Brommer. "We had Arne Carlson, who was elected in 1990, and in 1998 the current administration. There is, I think, a significant amount of indifference in those two administrations with regard to the needs of working families in our state."

During Brommer's career, the percentage of unionized workers plunged throughout the country. Minnesota is a state where unions were strong. According to the Bureau of National Affairs, a private research company, just over 18 percent of non-farm workers in Minnesota belonged to unions last year - compared with 44 percent in 1970. Despite that trend, Brommer sees great opportunity for union growth, largely because he says working people are beginning to realize they're being pitted against one another in the "global economy."

"I always have to chuckle a little bit about the use of that phrase. It's true we have a global economy when it comes to the corporate community, in terms of the benefits and the activities that are associated with being able to roam the globe at will. But when it comes to the economy a lot of working people aren't participating in it, at least in terms of the benefits. And I think that people are getting just a little bit fed up with the greed and excesses that they're seeing in the marketplace and in some people in the corporate world.," he says.

Brommer is hopeful international coalitions of workers will bring up wages and improve working conditions in other countries, thus stemming the loss of U.S. jobs. He says organized labor's highest priority should be bringing more people into unions. Under his leadership, the state AFL-CIO, for the first time, created a full time organizing position. Still, Brommer acknowledges dividing time between lobbying government and reaching out to more workers is a constant struggle.

"We haven't been successful to the extent that I would like, in terms of dealing with younger workers. It's something that's always out in front of you and you try to balance things. But the work of the state federation is determined by other election activity, activity in the Legislature. We don't have the luxury of ignoring the agenda of the business partnership and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce," says Brommer.

Brommer with the late Rep. Bruce Vento, a Democrat who represented St. Paul in Congress for nearly 24 years.
(Photo courtesy of Minnesota AFL-CIO)
"I don't think they've lost any ground, and that's a tribute to him," says DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe.

"I think his frustration was he would have liked to have seen even more things in place. That's not to say that's not going to come to pass because of his efforts. Because often the foundation has to be put down before you can start the building project, and I think that's what he has helped to do," Moe says.

As Brommer leaves the AFL-CIO, he is broadly recognized by allies and opponents for his diplomatic approach.

"To me, Bernie has been absolutely the most extraordinary leader that we could have had," says Jaye Rykunyk, principal officer of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers' union.

"His ability to articulate our issues has garnered us respect from those who I think have not been respectful of labor in the past. I think he has an enormous amount of integrity - personal as well as professional - so I think he's given the labor movement a really good reputation," says Rykunyk.

Brommer's successor as president is Ray Waldron, a former roofer. He was recently the head of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council. Waldron is described by associates as direct - not one to mince words. He vigorously enforces an order posted on the side of the AFL-CIO building, which bans foreign cars in the parking lot.

Waldron says he expects the AFL-CIO will be very active in the 2002 elections, working to keep DFL U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone in office. He also says the Minnesota labor coalition could benefit from more discipline.

"The unions themselves have to get closer together. Over the last 10 or 12 years, we've been split and we've disagreed on endorsements for a lot of statewide and national candidates. I think we have to stop that."

Waldron takes over the presidency of the Minnesota AFL-CIO this week.

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