After 30 years, union activist still committed to service

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“You really have to believe that labor unions are the way to improve people’s lives, through better wages, better health care, better pensions,” says Mary Ystesund. That core belief guided Ystesund through 30 years’ work as Minneapolis director of the AFL-CIO Community Services program. “It’s not a job, it’s a philosophy,” she reflects, discussing her retirement coming June 30.

“This is the way to empower people,” she adds. “You can’t do it as an individual. Numbers give strength.”

Labor-United Way partnership
Part of a nationwide partnership between the AFL-CIO and the United Way, the Community Services program links union members and their families with vital assistance in time of need, whether a family crisis, layoff or strike.
“It’s kind of like a “First Call for Help” for the labor movement,” Ystesund explains. “We’re somewhat of a safety net if things fall apart.”

Ystesund is one of 240 local United Way labor liaisons across the nation. “She’s part of the heart and soul of this program. We’re going to miss her,” says Bud Biscardo, national director for United Way’s partnership with the AFL-CIO.

The Community Services program in Minneapolis is an office of the Greater Twin Cities United Way. “It’s really a good fit, especially for this community where labor is so strong,” Ystesund says. “The labor movement is always eager to help others and they’re very generous.”

Referrals come from local unions and from other social service agencies. “If they’re a union member, that’s all we care about,” Ystesund says.

“Our main goal is to keep people employed,” Ystesund emphasizes. “Sometimes people have off-the-job problems preventing them from working.” These problems might include family crisis, domestic abuse, or chemical dependency.

And, Ystesund says, “we only get involved in off-the-job problems.” In her 30 years, she steered clear of internal union politics and served with five Central Labor Union Council presidents.

In addition to working with individuals seeking assistance, Ystesund’s work also involved coordinating food drives and blood drives, voter registration activities, and training for unions about Workers Compensation, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. She also trained union stewards to recognize workers needing help.

Some discouragement
After 30 years’ work, Ystesund admits to some discouragement. “You still have so much poverty,” she says. “You can’t really mark a big improvement. Most people… are living paycheck to paycheck.”

Nowadays, she notes, “it takes two incomes to support a family. You lose a paycheck — for whatever reason — and it’s catastrophic to most families.”

“A lot of people who end up in a real frantic situation are single parents or single breadwinners because they don’t have that other paycheck,” she observes.

Over 30 years, Ystesund says, she encountered “a lot of sad stories.” For many people, “a lot of situations are beyond your control.” For other folks, however, “so many problems could be avoided with more planning.” People need to make better choices, she advises, and think of the repercussions of their decisions. Also, she adds, her office saw people “just hoping the situation will get better so they put it off.”

A union father’s legacy: care for others
Ystesund grew up in Minneapolis and Richfield and graduated from Richfield High School in 1965. In 1970, she completed a B.A. at the University of Minnesota with a major in social work and a minor in labor relations.

“My dad got me into labor relations,” she says. Her father, Dominic Zappia, was a longtime member and leader of Upholsterers Local 61.

“He was probably the most influential person in my life,” Ystesund says. From her dad, she says, she learned that “you had to help people” and “everyone had value.”

“The thing you really hate is seeing things my father worked so hard for in the 1930s and 1940s — when people put their lives on the line — taken away bit by bit.”

A career of service
Prior to Ystesund’s current job, she worked six years after college for Hennepin County in court services, where she was involved with child support and domestic relations. There she was a member of AFSCME Local 34 and served as a union steward.

Ystesund recalls the exact day she began her work with Community Services: March 16, 1976. “This was such a good fit when this job opened in 1976,” she says. “I was so lucky because I could do social services and be in the labor movement.”

For the first 15 years of her work at Community Services, Ystesund’s office was located at the United Way building at 404 S. 8th St. Then, 15 years, ago her office moved to the United Labor Centre.

The new location was more accessible to union members. “A lot of times, they would be sent to the United Way building and they would never show up,” Ystesund recalls.

For Ystesund, 30 years’ work always brought something new: new community issues, new committees to join. “It just doesn’t seem like 30 years,” she laughs.

Ystesund’s colleagues share high praise for their co-worker and friend. “There isn’t anyone in the whole human services network who cares more than Mary does about getting help to people who need it,” says Jean Dunn, executive director of the Teamsters Service Bureau, who worked with Ystesund for 20 years.

Ystesund was “absolutely, totally dedicated to working with union members and helping them with whatever problems they have,” says Byron Laher, director of public policy and labor services for the Greater Twin Cities United Way.

Always, Ystesund “makes sure folks were treated with dignity and humanity,” says Nancy McCormick, the United Way’s regional Community Services liaison. “Mary always has been a passionate advocate for working people.”

In retirement, Ystesund plans to garden and spend time with her family, including husband Dan Ystesund, a retired member and former vice president of UFCW Local 653, daughter Tracy and son Erik.

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