Cliff's Farewell Message

Brothers and sisters - I recently announced that I will be retiring from Hennepin County on August thirteenth. I was asked to write an article in which I would contrast and compare the state of the union when I first joined the union with where we find ourselves today.

When I joined Local 34 in 1969, the world was much different from today. The county was still flush with money from President Johnsonís War on Poverty (the other war that he lost). Incumbents in both the governorís office and the state legislature were friendly towards organized labor. As a result of that political support, the legislature passed and the governor signed, the Public Employee Labor Relations Act. It is this law that gives us the right to a labor contract through collective bargaining. I was on the localís first bargaining team, which created our first contract. This was a period of intense learning for both the union and the county as both sides had to learn how to negotiate wages and benefits for the first time. Much of my work for the union, during the time I was president of the local from 1973 through 1978, was directed towards developing a vigorous effort to protect members from abuse, and extend their rights and benefits. It was during this period that we adopted our rattlesnake banner which graces the masthead of our newsletter, and continues to symbolize the character of our local.

Local unions by themselves have little negotiating and political power. That is why we have always joined together into associations of locals for mutual protection and advancement. When I joined the union, the local was part of District Council 3, which was composed of several City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County local unions. This council was later merged into a larger District Council 14, which represented many local unions in the Twin Cities area. In 2004, three district councils were combined into the present District Council 5, which represents most of the local unions in the state with about forty three thousand members. With each of these changes, our negotiating and political power has increased enormously. 

The increase in political power has been both beneficial and necessary for the survival of public unionism in Minnesota. The political landscape has changed drastically since the 1970s. Organized labor has only uncertain support in the legislature and a hostile governor who would destroy public unions if he could. We have been fortunate to have had talented, hardworking leaders in the local and the council who have put service to the union above personal gain. However, what has remained constant throughout my career is that the real power of the union lies not in its leadership, but in an aroused and committed membership. Political action is the life blood of organized labor. What the Congress, the President, the State Legislature and the Governor give, they can also take away.

Two areas in particular, need your continued attention. The first is the protection of the Public Employees Labor Relations Act (PELRA). Your right to continue negotiating wages and benefits depends upon this law. Every year bills have been introduced in the legislature to weaken or eliminate this Act, and every year we have been able to beat them back. But next year, if we end up with a legislature which learns further to the right and a Governor Emmer, your right to collective bargaining may become a thing of the past. The second is the continuation of your Defined Benefit retirement program through PERA.  At one time in America, organized workers in both the private and public sectors could depend on a comfortable retirement with their defined benefit retirement programs. Over the past forty years, defined benefit programs in the private sector have virtually disappeared as bosses have enriched themselves and their stockholders at the expense of the workers. Politicians in many states have cast covetous eyes on the funds in defined benefit programs, or have failed to fund them appropriately. This has not yet happened in Minnesota because your union has been vigilant in protecting our pension program. In the last legislative session, efforts were made to replace our defined benefit program with a defined contribution program where the amount of your future retirement would be defined by the health of the stock market. That effort failed, but it will return. 

My parting thought for you is this: your dignity and rights in the workplace were not given to you by a benevolent employer or government. They were earned by the work and sacrifices of those who preceded you.  They will be maintained only by the efforts you make to maintain them. You are the union. Keep the faith. ~ Cliff Robinson (8/2010)