Historic moment ahead for Minnesota AFL-CIO?

Ray Waldron
Ray Waldron

Update: Shar Knutson was elected president this morning of Minnesota’s AFL-CIO by the organization’s general board, becoming the first woman to hold the position.

Knutson, a one-time St. Paul city employee, had been the first woman to lead the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. Knutson had received the endorsement of Ray Waldron, who announced that he was resigning as head of the AFL-CIO in the spring, a year before his term was to expire.

On the first ballot, Knutson won what had been expected to be a “white-knuckle” race with Bill McCarthy, president of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation.

Knutson won the majority support she needed from the 69 general board members present for the vote, despite the third candidate in the race — Mary Cathryn Ricker, head of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers – throwing her support to McCarthy over the weekend.

McCarthy was seen by some as more progressive than Knutson. He had run a union/political operation praised by DFL legislators, who credit labor with helping the party make major inroads in the western suburbs.

One of the key questions resulting from the election is what Ricker will decide to do after completing her term next year as the head of the St. Paul teachers union. Ricker, 40, came into the race with little traditional support from the old-labor network but impressed many with her energy and ideas.  But will there be a long-term place for her in the union hierarchy, or will the middle-school English teacher return to the classroom?

Late last week, she said she wasn’t certain what her next step would be.

Knutson’s behind-the-scenes style is expected to be little different from the style Waldron showed over his eight years as head of the 300,000-member umbrella organization.

She will have to stand for election next August before a much larger body, the delegates to the AFL-CIO convention.   Typically, these races have been uncontested.


Minnesota’s AFL-CIO could make a bit of history today, when its general board meets to select an “interim” president to succeed Ray Waldron.

Waldron announced last spring that he would retire this fall, a year before his second term as head of the umbrella organization for more than 300,000 union workers in the state was to end.

Waldron’s decision means that about 70 members of the organization’s general board will gather to select an interim leader. For the first time in the organization’s history, that leader could be a woman.

Shar Knutson, president of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, and Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, Local 28, are vying for the position, as is Bill McCarthy, president of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation.

Shar Knutson
Photo by Laura Markwardt
Shar Knutson

Ricker, 40, also would represent a generational change in leadership in an organization that is often reluctant to accept change.

“I would meet with people and they’d say, ‘We love your energy, we know there’s a future for you,’ ” Ricker said of her meetings with union leaders around the state.

There was, however, an implied “but” in those conversations. The implication: BUT you’re too young.

“It was very Minnesota feedback,” said Ricker, a middle-school English teacher before becoming head of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. “Nice, but honest.”

Most believe the race will come down to Knutson, who has been endorsed by Waldron, and McCarthy. Under the AFL-CIO constitution, the winner must receive a majority of the votes of the general board to receive the “interim” title. The full AFL-CIO convention will then elect a president in the fall of 2010, when Waldron’s term was to end. Winner of today’s election will have a huge advantage entering the general convention.

Mary Cathryn Ricker
Mary Cathryn Ricker

That there is even a contest makes this election unusual. Typically, the top job is uncontested.

It has been an unusual campaign, with few chances for the candidates to meet together before the people who will elect them. Mostly, this has been a campaign of quiet, hallway conversations, a decided disadvantage for Ricker, whose connections to labor leaders is not as deep as those of the other two challengers. In the spring, Ricker won her second two-year term as president of St. Paul teachers. She has made an impression with her energy and her ability to connect with younger workers.

McCarthy and Knutson have more traditional backgrounds. Both came up through the ranks of union offices, before winning their current jobs.

McCarthy, who was not available for comment for this article, has been head of the Minneapolis Labor Federation since 2002. Before that, he made his mark as a union leader as a member the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 17. In the late 1980s and 1990s, members of that immigrant-filled union were frequently being exploited by employers who were quick to threaten union activists with deportation.

Bill McCarthy
Bill McCarthy

Knutson, the first woman to head the St. Paul labor group, has been an officer in that organization for a decade. She’s sparred with the likes of Norm Coleman. Generally, however, she’s stayed behind the scenes.

“A workhorse, not a show horse,” she says of her style, which makes her similar to Waldron. “I feel that I’ve been tested, proven. I’ve got the experience to do this job. … In difficult times, what we (the union movement) can do is more important than ever. We can help members keep jobs or, in the worst cases, at least try to make the landings of workers who lose their jobs a little softer.”

In his eight years as head of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, Waldron gets high marks for bringing more women into leadership positions in the group. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment has been working to keep relationships in Minnesota friendly between the AFL-CIO unions and the Change to Win Coalition unions (the Services Employees International Union and the Teamsters) which split from the AFL-CIO in an ugly divorce played out nationally in 2005.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Peter Rachleff on 08/17/2009 - 11:56 am.

    I expect more from both Doug Grow and MinnPost than this article offers. Waldron has presided over a sharp decline in the size, power, and presence of the state AFL-CIO. He turned his back and his organization’s resources on the Northwest Airlines mechanics when they struck in 2005-2006. He and the state AFL-CIO have been invisible in the movement for immigrant workers’ rights. They do not deserve the appellations labor “movement” or “organized” labor. Knutson has not done any better. She has also allowed the St. Paul Labor Day Picnic, one of the few places where labor unions interacted with non-union workers, to wither and die. Come on Doug, offer us some analysis!

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 08/17/2009 - 02:19 pm.

    Along with the updates any speculation from anyone on how this could play out in the building trades and/or large public works? How will the peron affect policy?

  3. Submitted by Peter Rachleff on 08/18/2009 - 01:34 pm.

    Let me add, today, that Doug could at least get his facts straight. Knutson is not the first woman to head the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly. That would have been Lola Reed from the American Postal Workers Union, who succeeded Steve Dress in that position. And still no analysis.

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