Q&A with Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bernie Burnham on meeting labor’s moment
Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bernie Burnham in her office in February 2023. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.
Bernie Burnham took the helm of the Minnesota AFL-CIO just over a year ago as the first person of color to lead the sprawling federation of labor unions.
She arrived at an opportune time for labor, with enthusiasm for unions soaring and Democrats taking control of state government this year. As head of Minnesota AFL-CIO, Burnham must support a broad coalition with shared economic goals but diverging political priorities and ideologies.
Burnham’s introduction to unions came as a teacher in Duluth, where she grew up with her Filipino father and Irish mother. She became a union steward for her fellow teachers and then in 2019 became vice president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers’ union.
Following the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, Burnham was appointed to be the co-chair of MN AFL-CIO’s first racial economic justice committee, which became her entry point to the organization.
Burnham recently sat down for an interview to discuss MN AFL-CIO’s political priorities, a surge in labor interest and grappling with conflicts within unions.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AFL-CIO MN worked hard to get Democrats elected last year. What do you want to accomplish this legislative session with the trifecta?
Our number one thing is paid family and medical leave.
Also getting rid of the captive audience meetings. We’re in talks with one of our reps to get that bill introduced … With all the new folks organizing — folks at Starbucks and Amazon and Half-priced Books — we don’t want them to have to sit through meetings like that.
(Editor’s note: This refers to management forcing workers to sit through anti-union presentations.)
The public’s support for unions is the highest it’s been in nearly 60 years, according public polling. It seems like there were decades of stagnation and then, like a light switch, there’s a surge in union support. Why do you think that is?
A lot of it goes back to the whole COVID pandemic. People just realize that when they stayed home, they weren’t feeling exhausted and worn out. They had time with their families, and they just felt better about life as a whole.
You know, my dad was a chef when he was alive, and the hours he put in and the time on his feet and the hours away from home. It’s all of that. So, how do you have workplace balance?
I think people want to be treated better at work. They want to be paid well. They want to have benefits, and they want to have paid family medical leave. I mean, just time off so that they can enjoy their life.
And yet, union membership is stagnating or ticking down. Why aren’t we seeing a surge in union membership?
In union-related industries, where there are unions already, there hasn’t been as much turnover because people are happy in their jobs. There’s a shortage of workers in those fields as well. I mean, we see that in nurses and teachers and those areas.
I think in other fields, obviously, where there are non-union jobs, the turnover is greater. And so they’re just not union jobs, right?
But the share of the workforce that’s unionized is stagnant. Why aren’t we seeing a greater number of union members if Starbucks is unionizing and Trader Joe’s is unionizing? There’s all this talk about everyone wants to unionize.
There’s also pushback from corporations. They don’t want them to unionize. It’s not happening as quickly as it should because the National Labor Relations Board doesn’t have enough resources either. Then it is the bargaining agreements, which aren’t happening. There’s pushback from corporations in a big way.
Are established unions investing enough resources in organizing and trying to get more members? That’s a criticism I’ve heard is that many established unions have rested on their laurels and are more focused on fighting losses in the contracts of their current members rather than hiring new organizers and going after new workplaces which will cost a lot of money and may not yield a victory.
Well, that’s changed. I mean, they can’t rest on their laurels anymore. Just from my perspective, I was a local leader in Duluth with the Duluth Federation of Teachers at the time of Janus.
(Editor’s note: Janus references a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held public sector unions can’t force workers covered by their bargaining agreements to pay membership dues or fees.)
It was our job to go and talk to everybody and talk to everybody and talk to everybody. You’re not necessarily going to get someone to agree the first time but you keep going back to them and ask them what they’re looking for and what it is they need, and then explain to them what we provide.
And you take a look at SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa. They’re growing. Jamie Gulley and his group are working like crazy and bringing in new people all the time. So you can’t rest on your laurels. You got to do the work.
Workers at Starbucks, Amazon and Trader Joe’s are leading ambitious organizing efforts. And they’re choosing to do so by forming their own new unions rather than join established ones. Why do you think they’re doing that?
The thing we hear is that they have a different vision for what it looks like — they are not necessarily in line with the old guard. They are newer people that have a newer vision for what they think a union should look like, and we’ve got to be listening to them, too … Maybe someday, they’ll want to move in a different direction, but for now, they’re happy being themselves and it’s a new time.
Unions have missions to improve the economic welfare of all their members. And yet, we’re in a moment now with a lot of focus on racial justice. And that’s led to some friction. I’m thinking of the Minneapolis teachers union including language that white teachers would be laid off before teachers of color. Was that the right approach?
I’ll tell you, if we don’t stand up for racial justice today, in our country, we’re just going to walk backwards. In 1968, when I was in fourth grade and the Civil Rights Movement was really at its peak, in my mind, I thought things were going to be better for a lot of people. And yet as we sit here today, we know that it’s still not. There are people of color who are still mistreated and who are underrepresented. So I think it’s just something we have to continue to move forward with.
So do you think unions should be adopting race-conscious policies like the Minneapolis teachers union?
Tell me about the AFL-CIO MN’s racial justice committee. What are some of the successes and challenges you’ve had in that committee?
The challenges are always that the conversations are hard, right? I mean, it’s not easy to talk about race, especially in the labor movement. People of color have not always been treated well in the labor movement. I believe that those things are changing.
I think their public safety resolution is a great thing that they’ve done. The successes are pulling together a group of people who agree with each other and yet, it can be very uncomfortable. Because there are white people in the room and there are Black people and there are Indigenous people in the room. And we work really hard to have conversations that are hard with respect. People are committed to the work, and that’s really refreshing.
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