I’ve been a union organizer for nearly fifteen years now. I never thought I’d ever have a professional job. Honestly, I didn’t think I’d live to be this old. When I was younger I’d work a few months, save up some money and travel. I was a cute little crust punk that didn’t have high expectations for myself. Live fast, die young and all that. I’ve hitchhiked, slept under bridges and have the bad tattoos to prove it.
That was until I turned 23 and got the phone call that changed my life. It was my uncle Dave. He told me there was an accident at the mill, that a propane tank was being filled outside the cage, caught a spark and became a missile. He told me that my Dad had been hit, that he tried to make a tourniquet around his waist but he wasn’t sure if he would make it and that I should get to the hospital.
My Dad had a long journey to recovery but the way the company treated him, spying on him, to make sure he was really injured as he was learning how to walk again inspired me to go to college and try in some way to become part of the labor movement. I didn’t know what an organizer was or how to create collective power through direct action yet but I knew I needed to do something.
I spent the first six years of my union career organizing new unions in the retail and food processing plants in and around Chicago. As I was studying in college I never once truly thought about how my job would be to confront economic power and what that would look like. About how many times it would involve getting removed from worksites by police. (Or searching desperately for a public bathroom). Once in the Back of the Yards a manager called the police on me and as police and she were escorting me out she blurted out, “I’m sorry Kristin, I really like your new glasses!”
You called the cops on me Gina, we’re never going to be friends.
Cut to eight years later. Act 10 and Scott Walker had laid a plan in Wisconsin that was starting to take hold of the rest of the country with the supreme court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The case aimed to destroy public sector unions on a national level. Their plan was later realized with the case Janus v. AFSCME in 2018. 2017 is when I began to look around and realized I was living in a bubble.
Sure, Chicago was fun. I served on the board of a workers’ center for Day Laborers and Domestic Workers, I had worked on raising the minimum wage, the legalization of marijuana, organized new unions and fought for the city wide paid sick leave ordinance and I was…bored. That's when I saw Wisconsin, my home, in a whole new light.
I had left Wisconsin in 2008 after trying to work against the state amendment to ban gay marriage and the local county ordinance to make English the “official” language. The two wildly bigoted pieces of legislation passed and it broke my heart. I left Wisconsin with a lot of anger. It was nearly 10 years later and Scott Walker was preparing for re-election. That’s when I felt called to go home. I felt like I had gotten an education in organizing from Chicago and now the things that felt so daunting in the past didn't feel that scary.
Plus I couldn’t even remember the last time I got hate mail in Chicago. Lol are you even doing anything if you don’t get hate mail?
I’ve explained this to fellow trade unionists at multiple conferences and they always look at me with disbelief. Why would I want to leave a blue bubble? It’s because I believe there’s possibility in the chaos. We don’t have contracts, everything we win, we win because people have banned together to demand it through direct action. That is exciting to me. If nothing is defined, everything can be defined.
Some of the fiercest locals I have worked with are open shops in Right to Work states. Meaning people don’t HAVE to join the union just because they work in a place. This forces the union to actually organize, create and take on campaigns and be a living organization.
A contract is great but if it lives on a shelf and no one knows what it says, what good is it? That is what excited me about Wisconsin, it's a chance to rebuild from the wreckage and create unions that are living breathing organizations that understand the power of collective action.