Not Eudora   By Harry Welty
Published Dec 25, 2003

AFSCME’s Christmas Gift 


There it was, bold as brass, in the Labor World’s December issue, AFSCME’s holiday greetings to all union members from its Director and union reps including Duluth City Councilor-Elect, Laurie Johnson. The City’s biggest bargaining unit had just announced its best Christmas present ever, a fully conflicted City Councilor placed on the public employee union’s payroll. This should make the City’s next contract negotiations a lot more interesting.


AFSCME (which stands for American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) has been the most aggressive single force behind local politics for several election cycles. As the most perennial candidate for public office since Harold Stassen I’ve sat through nearly a dozen AFSCME screenings and am well aware of their clout. The half dozen people who decide where to put the resources of thousands of public employees don’t always get their candidates elected but they wield a big stick. Ironically, AFSCME’s fixation on social policy has created a rift between public employees and the traditional trade unions. AFSCME endorsed candidates often seem to have more in common with the Green Party than union politics. Whatever AFSCME’s tilt no one can doubt the union’s influence on next year’s City Council. Laurie Johnson will be part of AFSCME’s imprint.


Anyone who paid attention to last fall’s election campaign knows that the lively Laurie Johnson has strong pro-union convictions. She worked for the United Food and Commercial Worker’s Union which wasn’t a problem. There are very few, if any, UFCW workers, employed by the City of Duluth so Laurie had no personal conflict-of-interest. Now, however, if an AFSCME strike breaks out Laurie will have to go to the office every day knowing how her boss and fellow business reps will expect her to vote when the AFSCME contract comes to the City Council for approval.


Duluth , which endured generations of good-ole-boy’s politics, has been very sensitive about conflicts-of-interest. Past School Board Chairman, Mike Akervik, won’t even vote on a teacher’s contract because his wife is a Duluth teacher. Another School Board member, Laura Condon, has been criticized for serving on the Duluth Board even though she is a teacher in a neighboring school district. I know that Laura is sensitive to the issue because during the recent shortage of substitute teachers I raised the idea of putting my teaching certificate to good use by subbing in Duluth . I thought I could help the District while getting a good look at our schools from the inside. I needed the School Board’s approval to sub, however, and ended up dropping the idea. The school board’s union members especially opposed my proposal. Laura told me frankly that the pay I would receive for substituting would be an inappropriate conflict-of-interest.


AFSCME has no such qualms. Even before Laurie Johnson was hired on AFSCME employees were taking a lead in her election campaign. One of them, Marshall Stenerson, wrote glowingly about Laurie. After the election and Johnson’s victory Marsh couldn’t help but take a cheap shot at Todd Fedora, her defeated rival, in the November 6th, Northland Reader. “…My first suggestion would have been that you lose the dye job and concentrate on controlling your sneer when addressing your opponent,” Stenerson sneered.


I met Fedora years ago when he was a student in Mary Murphy’s American History class at Central High School . I was substituting in Mary’s class while she was in St. Paul during a legislative session. Todd is the only kid I can recall from the class. He was bright and good naturedly challenging; just the kind of student a teacher loves to have in class. Todd got married, took a job as a banker, and subsequently joined our Church and took an active leadership position. During the City Council campaign Todd became the target of a lot of letters-to-the-editor which criticized him for having a bad temper. If these letters caused 250 voters to switch their votes from Todd to Laurie then it cost him the election. Had AFSCME announced Laurie’s hiring a month earlier I suspect Todd would have won back far more votes from Johnson than the issue of his temper cost him. Timing is everything in politics and no one can fault AFSCME’s timing.


I also know Laurie Johnson. She is the sunniest candidate for public office that I’ve ever met. When she checked groceries at Mount Royal the two of us would kibbutz about the public schools. I did some hasty research on class size at her behest when she complained that her son was in a health class with fifty other kids. She obviously had good sense where her family’s interests were concerned. Unfortunately, her hiring by AFSCME calls into question her ability to tell where her interests and the interests of the public lie.


Representing thousands of workers on the public payroll its not surprising that AFSCME would want to have friendly public servants sitting across from them during contract negotiations but there are limits.  It’s too bad that AFSCME’s shameless grab for power has given the public something so deserving of a good sneer.


Happy Holidays!


Harry Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.snowbizz.com