In honor of Black History Month, we sat down with one of California's most dynamic labor leaders, Willie Pelote with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to discuss the intertwining history of the labor movement and the civil rights movement and how to continue that legacy.
Can you describe how you got started in the labor movement and how you came to work for AFSCME?
I’m from a family of nine and I grew up on our family farm in Clyo, Georgia. When you grow up on a farm, you work from the day you can walk and learning about hard work in that environment has been a major influence in my life. My first job outside of working on my grandparents’ farm was a union job. It was then that I learned about the power workers can achieve when they stand together. Everyone supported each other and our negotiations helped people earn a living wage to support their families.
After coming home from Vietnam, I was stationed in Sacramento. While going to school and working as a Sergeant-of-Arms at the State Capitol, I met Willie Brown, then Speaker of the State Assembly. After working with his office for several years, I was asked to come to work with AFSCME. That was over 19 years ago. I can’t believe I’ve been given such an incredible opportunity to work in the largest public sector union in the country and to also represent 176,000 Californians. I stayed with AFSCME for nearly 20 years for many reasons. I enjoyed working with all levels of government, driving campaigns to help working people in our state, and getting to know our members; but I was always most passionate about the idea that I was helping working people like my family make it in California.
As a labor leader in CA, what work are you most proud of?
I’m proud that we have been able to give a united collective voice to our members at their worksite and the agency to take part in decision-making about the vital services they provide to people in our great state. I’m also proud that we’ve been persistent with holding elected officials accountable to working people in California.
During the civil rights movement there was a very clear intersection with the labor movement. What are the opportunities to continue that legacy today?
It’s always been very meaningful to me that Martin Luther King Jr. was standing up for AFSCME sanitation workers the day he was assassinated. In his speech that day, he was adamant and very clear that the two movements were connected by a shared common purpose. The civil rights and labor movements both fought for dignity and control of our destiny in our workplace and in our communities. Continuing that legacy is very important and there are lessons we can learn from leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Philip Randolph. We have to recognize the intrinsic and historical connection to our community allies if we’re going to grow our movement.
What should the labor movement be doing today to continue the tradition of advocating for civil rights that AFSCME helped build?
We need to be tireless and vigilant about engaging in dialogues to remind and educate all communities about our history. We need to rethink the way we talk about unions in our country, particularly if we’re going to reach younger people. Labor unions continue to fight for basic rights for all and resources to help working people move forward in our society and everyone should think that when they hear the word “Union”. Unions should also think about moving offices to be closer to the communities and people they represent. Our voter turnout was so low last year and unions are in a unique position to reinforce the idea that working people have power and can move our country in the right direction.
In your opinion, what are some of the most pervasive obstacles to achieving the world MLK Jr spoke about? How can the labor movement contribute to overcoming these obstacles?
We stopped sharing and spending time together. We stopped depending on each other. During the civil rights movement, communities came together. We inspired and motivated each other in the face of stubborn and dangerous pushback. I think our movement today should be doing more to keep that up. We also need to recognize that the key to continuing all of our most revered successes is in the hands of youth today. In my office, I created an annual internship for three college graduates and fill those spots every January. I work to make sure they have good jobs after they have completed the internship and I pay them for their work. It’s important to pass the torch and bring the best and brightest into our movement.
Can you name a few of the labor and civil rights leaders who inspired you when you were growing up?
There’s quite a few but the ones that come to mind are A. Philip Randolph, Frederick Douglas, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They all inspired me because so much of the work they did for the civil rights movement also helped build a strong labor movement. When I think about folks like them, I feel grateful. I know that their contributions made it possible for me to be where I am today.
Willie L. Pelote, Sr. has served as California Political and Legislative Director for the 1.4 million members of AFSCME since 1995. A 1977 graduate of California State University, Sacramento, Pelote has served on numerous boards and committees. A veteran of Vietnam, Pelote also served as Sergeant-At-Arms for the California Legislature from 1980 to 1987. From 1987 to 1995, Pelote worked for Willie Brown, at the time Speaker of the California State Assembly. In 1999, Pelote was appointed by former Governor Gray Davis to the State Task Force on Diversity.