Preparing to Lead
Members of AFSCME’s Next Wave Take Up the Reins, Giving Themselves and Their Union a Boost
Members of AFSCME’s Next Wave Take Up the Reins, Giving Themselves and Their Union a Boost
By Clyde Weiss
The next generation of AFSCME leaders is one that considers iPods and social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter necessary items in labor’s modern tool chest. These men and women—35 and younger—view their union through new eyes, with fresh ideas. They deserve to be heard, encouraged and included.
AFSCME WORKS profiles three of these young activists: members who have set out to learn more about their union and influence its future. They’re all part of the union’s Next Wave—groups of young members who come together at the local, state and national levels to make AFSCME stronger.
Hundreds of these youthful activists met last June in Chicago for the first national Next Wave conference. The meeting emerged from a realization that AFSCME needs to build a new generation of leaders who can take the reins in the years ahead.
Approximately 13 percent of AFSCME’s 1.6 million members are in the 35-and-under age group. Let’s meet three of these talented individuals.
Showing The Way - Elvyss Argueta is ‘statewide facilitator’ for Oregon Council 75's Next Wave committee. (Photo credit: Steve Dipaola)
Elvyss Argueta didn’t give much thought to unions—his or any other—until his local steward told him about ‘Thirsty Thursday.’
“I didn’t want to go to any union meetings because I didn’t know what to expect,” explains the 27-year-old employee of Transitions Projects, a nonprofit housing agency for the homeless in Portland, Ore. His union, Local 88 (Council 75), represents approximately 2,800 Multnomah County employees, including approximately 55 who work at Transitions Projects.
But Argueta did comprehend the value of Thirsty Thursday, an informal gathering of Local 88 members. “I needed friends, so it served as a way of making them,” he says, adding, “It also gave me more information about the union.”
“That’s when Elvyss stepped out of the woodwork and started participating,” says Becky Steward, a business analyst for Multnomah County and president of Local 88 at the time. “Elvyss is able to communicate his passion for workers, and his passion is contagious,” she adds.
Passion is a word that seems to define Argueta. “Elvyss has a passion for social justice,” remarks Council 75 Exec. Dir. (and AFSCME International vice president) Ken Allen. Through a contract fight in 2007, he says, Argueta “figured out the union is the avenue to carry out that passion.”
Allen remembers well the first time he met Argueta. They were both at city hall to lobby about the union’s contract. “He let me know this wasn’t the last time I’d see Elvyss Argueta.”
Not long after, at a contract rally at Transitions Projects, Argueta made true on his promise. “It was a wet, rainy Portland night,” Allen recalls. Approximately 125 people were there—nearly all of them “Next Wavers.”
“They had their iPhones hooked up to the sound system, blasting music out at this worksite,” says Allen. “It was a huge amount of fun, and Elvyss was one of the ringleaders.”
By then, Argueta had jumped head first into what he now calls the “deep end of the pool,” where his enthusiasm has flourished through union activism. “Next thing you know,” he says, “I’m doing things like training and volunteer member organizing.” He also sits on his local’s contract bargaining team and was elected to the local’s executive board.
Elvyss found his voice through Next Wave, which he calls a “catalyst or the door into the union”—but one with a unique approach for young members. “You need to connect one-on-one first” before talking union, he explains. That’s why they conduct food banks, plant trees and do other non-traditional union activities. “We’re trying to show we’re not just about benefits and salaries. We’re also about social justice.”
At Council 75's biennial convention in 2007, Argueta was elected the Next Wave committee’s statewide facilitator. “I’m the point person,” he explains. “My job is to contact people in the council’s six districts to find out how their programs are going, and to facilitate meetings.”
As for the future, Argueta isn’t sure. He’s satisfied with his current role as an activist, but says running for a union office isn’t out of the question.
Carrying The Torch - Meghan Culpepper at Council 13's Women’s Conference last year in Hershey, Penn. (Photo credit: Carl Socolow)
Meghan Culpepper, 24, carries a torch of union activism that was first held in Pennsylvania by her grandmother and continues today with her mother. But the lighting of Culpepper’s fire wasn’t automatic.
“I didn’t want to be involved with the union,” she admits. “That’s the irony of my whole story.”
The tale begins with Culpepper’s late grandmother, Edith Culpepper. During the early 1970s, Edith was involved in Pennsylvania Council 13's fight for the first contract for state workers. It’s the same council that AFSCME International Pres. Gerald W. McEntee helped build. At its 1973 founding convention, McEntee became the council’s executive director.
Edith’s daughter, Joyce Culpepper, continued the family’s council activism. She became president of AFSCME Local 1420, then president of District Council 90 and currently serves as vice president of Council 13. Joyce is also a member of DC 90’s executive board.
Now a third generation of Culpeppers is carrying forward the family tradition of labor activism. Meghan says her mother, Joyce, “begged me” to get involved in her union, Local 1224 (DC 90). For more than a year, however, she couldn’t. “The meetings were on the day I had class,” Meghan explains. With school and a job, “I had enough on my plate.”
Her attitude changed about two years ago when she learned about “30 under 30,” Council 13's outreach program for young members. Culpepper was intrigued and asked her council’s education department to let her know if something else came up. “I was trying to get my foot in the door,” she says.
Council 13's organizing director, Carla Insinga, told her about AFSCME’s emerging Next Wave program. It was the beginning of a new relationship with her union. Chosen to become a member of her council’s Next Wave steering committee, Culpepper jumped in with both feet. She even introduced President McEntee at the first national Next Wave conference last June in Chicago.
“I was inspired” by Next Wave, she said in her introductory remarks. “I wanted to be part of something that was bigger than me.”
An employee at the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, Culpepper now finds time for her union. She even worked on AFSCME’s political campaign to help elect Pres. Barack Obama. “That was my first taste of activism,” she says. “After that, I mainly focused on Next Wave.”
Culpepper also co-chaired a Next Wave class for new and young members last year. They taught parliamentary procedure, the operation of a local and the history of AFSCME. Approximately 50 people showed up—most of them 35 or younger. “It was good seeing people there who appreciated AFSCME enough to join the union to help it to grow,” she says.
Culpepper ran for her local’s executive board last fall. Although she didn’t win, she’s upbeat. “I did well. It makes me want to run again.”
She now attends steward training classes and other union events in an effort to keep learning. “That’s what AFSCME’s done for me,” she says. “I’m constantly learning something new.”
“I’m glad she’s taking up the reins,” her mother says. “If the young ones aren’t taught to carry on for the next generation, their interest in unions will fade away.”
“Meghan grew up as part of our AFSCME family,” adds Council 13 Exec. Dir. David R. Fillman, who is also an International vice president. “It gives me a real sense of pride to watch her take her rightful place as a union leader. There’s no doubt in my mind that great things are in store for her as she meets the challenges of her generation, and continues the fight for working men and women.”
Wisconsin corrections officer Matt Davis has justified the trust that his Council 24 leaders have given him. (Photo credit: Jim Matthews)
Matt Davis, a Wisconsin state corrections officer, is the embodiment of an energetic, youthful AFSCME leader. At 33, he’s already a steward, a member of Local 48's executive board, and an elected representative of his union’s Coalition of Correctional Institutions committee.
Larry Lautenschlager, president of Local 48 and treasurer of Council 24, recognized Davis’ zeal for activism the first time he showed up at a union meeting approximately five years ago. Back then, Lautenschlager was uncertain about Davis’ enthusiasm.
“Matt asked a lot of questions,” Lautenschlager explains. “I didn’t know how to take him. I thought, maybe he was there to cause problems.”
Lautenschlager realizes now he misunderstood the young man’s single-minded focus on the concerns of the roughly 100 corrections officers represented by the local. But that’s just a portion of the 740 Department of Health Services and Department of Corrections employees the local represents at two distinct but adjacent psychiatric care institutions in Winnebago.
Most of the local’s members are nurses’ aides, psychiatric care technicians, food service employees, maintenance and grounds workers and clerical staff. It was understandable that Lautenschlager thought Davis focused his concerns too narrowly.
But Davis, who works at the Wisconsin Resource Center, says he had strong opinions about issues affecting his fellow COs, and just wanted to raise his concerns with his union’s leaders.
“Not that we were ignored, by any means,” he emphasizes. Still, he was determined to let his local’s leaders know what was going on with them.
Months later, Davis got more active, applying to the local’s executive board to become a shop steward. “I was just interested in becoming a more vocal representative” he says.
Once again, Lautenschlager wasn’t sure what to make of this up-and-comer. “I’ll tell you, it wasn’t an automatic decision” to approve Davis’ steward application, he says. They asked themselves—recalls Lautenschlager—“Does Matt actually want to become a steward for his own satisfaction, or is he in it for the members?”
The board supported Davis, who quickly justified their faith in him. He represented his own unit, and took great interest in the entire Local 48 membership. “I’m here for everyone,” Davis declares.
“He surprised us,” Lautenschlager says. “Our stewards are involved in labor-management meetings, so we started getting Matt involved in some of that. He took front stage on a lot of issues.”
“I stand up for what I believe in,” says Davis. His activism was duly noted. Within a few years, Lautenschlager and other executive board members asked Davis to get even more involved.
“Some of us saw Matt was doing a wonderful job as steward, and he was young, so we got together and said, ‘You ought to run for president or vice president.’ He said, ‘No’—he needed to get some more experience.”
Davis agreed to fill a temporary opening on the executive board until elections were held six months later. Then he put his hat into the ring and won a full two-year term that expires this April.
At AFSCME’s Next Wave conference, Davis learned ways to encourage other new and young members to get more involved in their union. He’s now considering seeking a higher union post. “We think he’d be great,” says Lautenschlager.
Council 24 Exec. Dir. Marty Beil agrees: “Matt is a resourceful, motivated leader. He has made a commitment to make the concerns of young members heard and to offer a new direction, not only in his local and in the council, but in the workplace as well. Matt truly is one of our leaders for the future.”
Learn more, go to afscme.org/nextwave.