In 1970, Ray Waldron was an air traffic controller waiting for a job transfer closer to his home in Minnesota. When a neighbor offered Waldron short-term work as a fill-in in on a roofing job, Waldron accepted.
“They gave me a check for three days’ work, which was a hell of a lot more than an air traffic controller’s,” he said.
Waldron promptly changed career paths, joining Local 96 of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Trades. On Sept. 30 of this year, almost 40 years after Waldron climbed up on his first roof, the would-be air traffic controller will retire from his job as the state’s top union officer.
As president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor federation, Waldron has guided Minnesota’s unions through trying political and economic times – and through a period of realignment within the labor movement both locally and nationally. He has been a strong, plainspoken voice for working families and union members of all kinds in Minnesota.
“Different unions are all looking for the same things: better conditions for their members, better wages, better health care benefits and pensions,” Waldron said. “These are the core issues for all unions and workers in Minnesota.”
Ray Waldron addressed the crowd at his retirement luncheon last month. Photo courtesy of Jim Robins
Hustlin’ for a job
Waldron rose quickly through the ranks of Minnesota’s labor movement. Four years after joining Roofers Local 96, when he was 28 years old, Waldron landed a full-time job as the union’s agent-organizer. In 1978, the Minneapolis Building Trades Council hired Waldron as a business agent, and he worked there for the next 22 years, becoming the council’s business manager in 1990.
Waldron, though, learned early in his career never to get too comfortable in any job within the labor movement. In 1982, the business manager who hired Waldron away from the Roofers lost his re-election bid by one vote. Waldron had supported his boss publicly.
“You have to look people in the face and tell them what you can and you can’t do,” Waldron said. “Success is kind of a mystery, but the key elements to success are to work hard and be honest.”
Waldron’s new boss appreciated Waldron’s candor – and his hard work – and kept him on staff for the next 14 years.
Waldron later proved adept at winning elections in his own right. In 1990, the same year he became business manager of the Minneapolis Building Trades, Waldron was voted president of the Minnesota State Building Trades Council. And in 1999, he ran successfully for the position of state AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer.
When then-President Bernard Brommer retired in 2001, Waldron moved into the post he holds today.
For Waldron, the business of maneuvering and strategizing – whether it’s to win elections, contracts or lawmakers’ votes – is a labor of love.
“I don’t hunt. I don’t golf. I don’t fish,” Waldron said. “I enjoy hustlin’ – making a deal. I don’t care what it was, where it was or what day of the week it was, just hustlin’ to get a job, that was the game for me.”
At his retirement luncheon, Waldron accepts a commemorative Minnesota Twins jersey from club President Jerry Bell. Photo courtesy of Jim Robins
A new kind of labor leader
At Waldron’s retirement luncheon last month, labor and political leaders took the podium one by one and praised Waldron as a forward-looking, innovative leader, both as head of the Building Trades and as president of the state AFL-CIO.
Early in his career, while working for the Minneapolis Building Trades, Waldron sought to soften unions’ public image, which had been sullied by a bitter, summer-long strike in the early 1980s. After the two sides reached a settlement, Waldron proposed that Building Trades unions take up a public-relations campaign to promote their workers’ skills, training and record of community service.
His superiors bought into the idea. Promoting union workers and their skills changed the public perception of union members from “ex-cons, ex-hillbillies and high school dropouts,” Waldron said, “to the best and the brightest.”
“If you don’t say it yourself, nobody will say anything good about you in that industry,” Waldron said. “So we started to market our qualifications, our education and our skill level. We changed the complexion from being an adversary of the contractor to being a partner.”
Supporters also credit Waldron with ushering in a new era of inclusiveness within the labor movement in Minnesota, forcing unions and labor federations to confront the lack of diversity among their officers, members and staff. Indeed, it speaks volumes that Waldron’s successor, St. Paul Regional Labor Federation President Shar Knutson, whose candidacy Waldron supported, is not a white male.
“If you don’t make an effort from the top, it’s not going to happen,” Waldron said of diversity. “The simple, clear fact is if you give somebody an opportunity, they’ll really impress you.”
Waldron is the first to admit he has made both foes and friends since becoming president of the state federation in 2001. “I knew it would be taxing at times,” he said.
Two internal changes stand out as the significant challenges Waldron tackled during his tenure: the “New Alliance” process, which realigned the state’s labor movement, and the nationwide labor split four years ago.
Shortly after Waldron became president, the national AFL-CIO unveiled plans to reorganize Minnesota labor federations on the local level, dubbed the New Alliance.
Eight years later, the process is mostly complete, and a hodgepodge of central labor councils scattered throughout the state have been merged into six regional labor federations, with clearly defined boundaries and areas of interest.
Waldron presided over that realignment, which he calls “the greatest single change in the labor movement in Minnesota.” But it wasn’t easy.
“It changed a way of doing business that had been around for 50 years, handed down generation after generation,” Waldron said. “We thought there was a better way – an easier way – of doing business, but it was tough to go into communities and get support for that change.”
The process, though, has centralized labor’s power while keeping it visible on the local level. The new alliance has given unions a greater presence in local elections – city council, school board and county commissioner races, for example – and local issue-based campaigns.
“It goes right to the small town, Main Street elections, and we’ve got two U.S. senators, larger margins in the state House and Senate and more union members elected than ever before because of the New Alliance,” he said.
Shepherding the state AFL-CIO through the nationwide schism, when a handful of international unions broke away from the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win federation, proved an even tougher task. Waldron said he initially underestimated the impact the split would have on unions’ ability to coordinate their efforts on the local level.
“I doubted that it would affect Minnesota at all,” he said. “I was unbelievably surprised when it did.”
Waldron said he quickly learned that Minnesotans are “good soldiers” in their international unions. “When the general president of a union picks up the phone and says, ‘Ray Waldron is a (jerk),’ people I’d known for years were saying, ‘Ray Waldron is a (jerk).’”
Getting unions – and their leaders – to realize they have more to gain by working together than by working against each other, Waldron said, is the movement’s biggest challenge – a challenge that was around before his tenure as a labor leader, and one likely to live on well after.
“If people could get back together and start exchanging ideas about what’s good for the state of Minnesota, our members would benefit, and the leaders would benefit as well,” Waldron said. “When we can circle our wagons in defense or go on the offense, there’s no one who can match Minnesota organized labor in the state. But we don’t always tend to shoot out. Friendly fire does more damage than anything else we have.”
Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. Learn more at www.stpaulunions.org
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