Meet the First Woman President of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO

Wisconsin AFL-CIO
Wisconsin AFL-CIO

Elected the first woman president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, Stephanie Bloomingdale has more than two decades of experience in labor as an organizer, negotiator, trainer and activist. She served as secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO for eight years before her election as president in September 2018. Previously, she was director of public policy for the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, working on behalf of nurses and health care workers throughout the state. Bloomingdale has a statewide reputation as a tenacious fighter and tough negotiator, skills she says she had to develop to survive 20 years of arbitrations, grievance hearings and battles in the legislature.

What is the state AFL-CIO? What is its role?

The Wisconsin AFL-CIO is a federation of many different labor unions from many different sectors, public and private, service workers, manufacturing, building trades, retail, health care, transportation...people doing all types of work come together in the AFL-CIO to maximize our collective power.

You have the honor of being the first woman elected president of the state AFL-CIO, so can you talk to us about that?

My hope is that we’ll soon reach a time when this is no longer notable, a time when it’s simply accepted that the president, man or woman, was elected based on the qualities and skills that he or she brings to the job. I do believe that my election is a step in that direction.

As I travel around the state, so many of the women union members I meet are very excited, not only for me but also for themselves and their daughters. They see that they also can raise their hands and say, “why not me?” as they move into leadership roles. That’s why I think this is significant for all of us in the state of Wisconsin. Some people have said, “Well, Stephanie, isn’t this a good ol’ boys club?” and I can honestly say that has not been my experience. The men and women I work with value effective leadership and dedication. I think what’s important to them is that they can trust my commitment to building our collective power through the union movement.

We understand that your family is also involved in the labor movement in Wisconsin. Can you talk about that, as well as what inspires you personally to do this work?

The reason I do this work is because I do believe that unions are the only way that working people can truly get ahead. Now, if you’re fortunate enough to be born to billionaire parents with connections that will never allow you to fail and will always provide you with a golden parachute, that’s great. But for everyone else that has to get up every day and go to work for someone else, there has to be a way to protect and expand the opportunity to do better. The best way to do that is to have strong unions.

As for my family, my husband, Doug Savage, is an AFT [American Federation of Teachers] member and he has been very supportive of my work in the union movement since day one.

Lots of women carry full loads. Our work, our families, taking care of the kids, being involved in the community, involved in the PTOs, and for me, I believe that I’ve been fortunate in that my kids really have grown up in the labor movement. They’ve been helping out with the union since they were very little. I think that not only helped them to solidify their beliefs and attitudes and opened up new opportunities for them, but it also helped me to be able to do my job, because it was a family affair. I’ll never have to tell my children to vote; they’ve been coming with me whenever I’ve gone to vote, and they’ve learned that it’s their responsibility in this country to be a part of the solution. If they see something that’s wrong, it’s up to them to make it right. That is something we believe very strongly in our family.

When the kids were very little, I would bring them to the union office (the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals), I would give them little jobs to do, like paying them five cents a table for each one they cleaned, and after a while, my oldest son, Nicholas, said, “This is not enough money. This five cents a table is not enough.” So he called my Aunt Audrey, and he had her help him negotiate a better rate. It cost me more than double to get the tables washed after that, but Nicholas learned how to get what he needed and he didn’t even have to go on strike!

Not only did they do that, but they grew up going door-to-door with me, candidate after candidate, learning about the issues and the tools we use to make politics work for working people. In the November 2018 election, my younger son Spencer and I were going door-to-door for Tony Evers and Mandela Barnes. Once we got out there, I realized that he knows how to do all this on his own. He wanted to knock on the doors and talk to the voters himself about why Evers and Barnes were the best candidates for working people. I was very proud of him.

Can you tell us about Scott Walker’s attempts to bust the power of labor unions in the state of Wisconsin through Act 10 and “Right to Work,” and how labor has responded?

Scott Walker made it his mission to try to destroy the middle class each and every way he could while he was in office. He started with Act 10, which sought to destroy the collective bargaining rights of teachers and public-sector workers. His plan was to divide and conquer; we know that for a fact because he was caught on tape talking to Diane Hendricks [the conservative billionaire owner of ABC Supply who contributed $500,000 to Walker’s 2012 campaign to defeat a recall effort] when she asked him what he was going to do about the unions, and he said he would start with the public-sector unions and then use divide and conquer and go after the private-sector unions.

One thing he didn’t count on was our solidarity as union men and women. I think we demonstrated very clearly that “an injury to one is an injury to all” is more than just a labor movement platitude. Public- and private-sector unions stuck together throughout these attacks, beginning with Act 10 and on through Right to Work, attacks on prevailing wage and all the other anti-worker policies. Speaking of that, “Right to Work” is really a misnomer. It may sound good to some, but it’s just another attack on labor unions that amounts to the right to work for less. We like to say it’s a so-called right to work, because what it actually is meant to do is weaken unions.

Truly, attacks on working people happened throughout Walker’s entire tenure as governor. By any standard, Wisconsin workers have suffered some of the nation’s most serious attacks on our ability to have a voice in our workplace through a strong union. Scott Walker prided himself on being the union-buster-in-chief. So, was it difficult? Yes. Did we suffer a lot of hard knocks over those eight years? Sure, but we’ve taken those punches and we’ve always come back swinging. We know no matter how long the odds, the only time we’re sure to lose is if we leave the ring. Even though we had a governor and state legislature stacked against us, we never gave up, we never stopped fighting, because we knew we were on the right side—and no governor, no politician anywhere has the right to take away the ability of workers to organize ourselves into unions.

And in retrospect, these attacks had a silver lining. More people today know about unions and their importance in the economy, and more people understand that you can’t have a fair society, democracy or economy if workers don’t have the ability to come together as a team to advocate for ourselves; the way they accomplish this is through a union. Speaking at the Italian equivalent of the AFL-CIO recently, Pope Francis actually said that without strong unions there can be no strong society.

Because of these fights, many people, union or non-union, became energized and activated around these issues for the first time in their lives. Our issues were elevated to the forefront more than they had been in many decades. We’ve seen the effects of this not only in Wisconsin but also nationwide; we see this reflected in polling, which shows that unions are more popular now than they have been in decades, and in particular with millenials. They see unions in a positive light, because they sense opportunity and a chance for a decent life slipping away from their generation. Unions represent an opportunity to get that back.

Speaking of millennials, can you talk about the current labor movement and the young people now joining the workforce?

Millennials rightly have a lot of angst about the future. There’s a lot to worry about, starting with the basic question of how to make ends meet. We know we have an economic situation where we have a great deal of wealth in this country, but it’s very sharply divided between a few at the very top and the rest of working people. We want millennials to know exactly what a union is and does and why they’re so important. Without strong unions, there is simply no possibility of having a healthy middle class, and a strong middle class has always been the foundation of our economy. A union enables workers to stand together to maximize our power, negotiate for better wages and better safety conditions. The financial security a union job provides allows workers to truly participate in their communities. It’s hard to coach Little League or organize a neighborhood food drive if you have to work three jobs. So unions not only benefit our members, but the community as a whole.

If we want to talk about how that happens, it’s part of the basic human condition of people wanting to support each other and deliver mutual aid to one another, and this is the way that families support one another, and workers support each other in the workplace.

There are some studies that predict millennials may not be as prosperous as their parents’ generation, despite their generally being better educated through college, training and so forth than any previous generation. How does the labor movement feel about this? Are there reasons for optimism?

I think we are at a real turning point. I think many people now are coming to understand that we can’t just rely on politicians to make sure that workplaces are safe, and workers are paid fair wages. More and more, working people are realizing that we have to take action ourselves to protect our rights to these things. Unions allow us to act together. So if there’s any group of workers that need help, we’re all going to be there for them.

The American myth about the rugged individual really falls apart in the modern workplace. Did you ever notice the people telling workers to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps are the same people making it hard for us to buy boots? I believe that people, especially millennials, are waking up to this and coming to understand that the only way to make sure to have a decent life— not living on a hamster wheel of long hours, low pay and no time for anything else—is to stand together and organize. Again, this is exactly where an organized labor union comes into the picture.

As for our nation’s millennials, more now than ever before, with our gig-economy, people will have to stick together and make sure they don’t get the short end of the stick when it comes to having a fair share of the economic pie and their employer’s profits.

How do you, as president of the state AFL-CIO, feel about things in Wisconsin now, after the election of Gov. Evers and Lt. Gov. Barnes?

The voters made it very clear they were sick of Walker and the direction in which he was taking our state as governor. We’re very excited about Tony Evers and Mandela Barnes; already, we’re seeing positive changes since they took office. The budget that Gov. Evers has proposed is very good for working people; it repeals the so-called Right to Work, and it reinstates prevailing wage for construction jobs and project-labor agreements. It doesn’t do everything that we want, but it absolutely is moving us in the right direction.

But we’re also not naïve. We can do the math in the state Legislature. Because of the gerrymandered electoral maps, anti-worker Republican politicians are still in control. But there’s enormous value in having a governor and lieutenant governor willing to serve as a check on the worst abuses of power and set a new agenda that invests in our roads and other infrastructure, gets rid of the lead in our water pipes and make sure all of our drinking water is safe, makes sure we take the Medicaid expansion and making sure we invest in our kids by putting much-needed dollars into education at all levels.

At the same time, the labor movement knows there is never a political ‘savior’, right?

Yes. We’re well aware that, ultimately, we can’t rely only on our elected officials to ensure workers’ rights. We need to rely on ourselves and on each other to remain very active in our communities and unions. From the earliest days of the union movement, we’ve always been our own best champions. We’ll continue to support our political allies, but we’re well aware that it’s ultimately up to all of us working together for the common good and exercising what really is democracy in the workplace. You soon learn in the labor movement that we’re in a race without a finish line. The secret to success is to stay united. Keep one eye on the horizon and keep putting one foot in front of the other. If we do that, unions will stay strong, our middle class will prosper, and the American Dream will be there for generations to come.

This post originally appeared in the Shepherd Express.