Taking over leadership of a local that’s been led by an active and long-standing team can be a little intimidating. But it can also be exciting when new and old leaders join together to make the handoff as efficient and effective as possible.
At the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Local 3142, longtime chief steward Jim Ullmer and president Steve Kuehl have retired. Esther Kaiser became president to start the transition a few years ago, and Jaime Santiago is the new chief steward.
At Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center, Local 1307 president Jackie Spanjers and chief steward Paul Thompson recently retired, handing off top leadership to new president Lance LeMieux. Both locals will also lose several other key officers and Executive Board members to retirement this year.
“Jackie Spanjers and Paul Thompson, they were amazing,” says LeMieux, who previously served as vice president and a steward. “They did a lot for this local. I was able to be in the passenger seat for all of that. It really helped me in preparing to do all of this. We’ve got big shoes to fill, but I think everybody’s excited and driven to fill those shoes, to make sure nothing is lost in this transition.”
Planning for the Transition
A key reason for the successful handoff in both locals was that the former leaders planned ahead, recruiting and grooming new leaders.
“Jim said, ‘I think you should be the next president,’” Local 3142’s Kaiser says. “I told him that was kind of crazy.” But Ullmer persisted, and when Kaiser was nominated for the job, she accepted the role.
“I’m very passionate, and I will fight until we get what works for us and get what we need,” Kaiser says. “I’m not one who will just settle for less. My big push is to help people, and if I feel someone is being taken advantage of, I’m just going to fight. I know we can’t always get everything, but we can’t get walked on, either.”
Ullmer recruited Santiago, too. Santiago says when Ullmer knew he was going to retire about two years ago, he asked Santiago if he wanted to get more involved and shadow him as chief steward.
“That’s the kind of consideration Jim had, “Santiago says. “He wanted it left in good hands. He wouldn’t have wanted it just dumped on somebody like, ‘Here it is, I’m out the door.’ You talk to him today and he still wants to be involved. He may have retired from his career, but he knows the union is still important.”
At Anoka, under the leadership of Spanjers and others, AFSCME helped shine a bright light on working conditions and inadequate staffing that caused injuries to staff and patients at state mental health treatment facilities.
This past legislative session, members won $32 million to hire more staff, plus $106 million (part of a larger $988 million bonding bill) to provide security cameras and other safety measures at Anoka; modernize the St. Peter Security Hospital and make it safer; save a treatment program for children; and make improvements to the Sex Offender Programs. Those Safe Staffing wins built on another big victory from the year before, when members won $20 million to hire more staff and prevent injuries.
“We’ve gathered so much momentum, we want to make sure we don’t slide back,” LeMieux says. “A lot of our union leadership is new. They’re very excited and committed to going forward.”
He wants to create a template that defines everyone’s role to ensure future handoffs go this smoothly, to increase involvement among all levels of leadership and attract more members to meetings.
‘You are the union’
Kaiser has big plans of her own. Local 3142’s leadership has been extraordinary in its outreach. The local has members all over the state, yet leaders made a point of visiting each work site every year. Kaiser plans to continue that tradition and hopes to make the local even more visible.
She plans to offer incentives for people to sign cards committing (or recommitting) to their union, to sign up for AFSCME’s political fund PEOPLE, to get volunteers at the annual AFSCME family picnic. She plans to continue the local’s strong focus on communicating with members. She also wants to offer training and get newer workers involved.
“The people who are kind of scared, I build them up and get them to a point they can see they’re an asset,” she says. “Let’s figure out what you’re good at, and use those skills to help other people.
“People will say, What has the union done for me? I tell them, ‘You are the union.’ There’s no special entity. All of us together will fight for what we need, but we can’t fight for what we don’t know about. We can’t fix what we don’t know is wrong. You do better when you know better.”
Santiago says keeping a strong union is critically important.
Without our union, he says, “It would mean we could be picked off one by one, we’d have no defense. My kids depend on that check coming in. It could mean your lifestyle, your livelihood, all that is out the window.”
Sumi Lehman, new Local 602 president, Minnesota State Moorhead, replacing the retired Dave Renecker
“I’m hoping we get more people involved, more people knowing what is going on with our union, how it benefits them,” Lehman says. The local started a welcome committee that tells new members about their union, provides a gift bag and takes the new people out for lunch or coffee. They created a fact sheet about the rights that come with union membership. Next up is creating other committees to boost involvement and recruit new people to run for union office.
“If we all stand together, we let our administration know they can’t mess with us.”
Louis Kneisel, vice president, Local 1092, DHS Moose Lake
“I wanted to step up in my local to help out, fight against the administration, protect my members, be a leader,” he says. “Our local has had troubles getting a quorum at meetings. That’s one of my main goals is to get more people involved and more people to come to our meetings. So far it’s looking good. We’ve had a quorum three months in a row.”
Kneisel says he’s having a lot of one-on-one conversations.
“It’s not so much what I’m telling them, it’s what they have to say, it’s listening, and following through if they have a question,” he says. “The biggest part is the follow-up.
“To get what’s fair for the members, to stand together and be one, it’s not possible without a union.”
Charlie Krueger, new president of Local 3139, Minnesota Department of Administration
“I felt a need to take an active role especially given the political climate we’re facing right now. What being in a union is all about is becoming a closer-knit group. It’s a simple as just saying hi to everybody, taking lunch with a different unit, reaching across departmental lines and job categories.
AFSCME is unique in the sense we’re not a painters union or plumbers union where everyone has the same job.
What I really want is members in the local and across AFSCME to feel like the officers and E-board are not the union, we are all the union. There’s 43,000 of us, and we all matter and we all care about each other across those job lines. We’re all in this together.”