Union roots run deep in family of new director of Montana AFL-CIO - Ekblad hopes to tap new vehicles to energize 44,000 members
By Jo Dee Black, Great Falls Tribune
It wasn’t until recently that Alan Ekblad, the newly elected executive director of the Montana AFL-CIO learned that his mother, who died a couple of years ago, was one of six plaintiffs in a lawsuit for equal pay for women filed in Minnesota decades ago. She joined the suit during her first year on the job as a teacher.
“My mother graduated from high school at 16 and earned a two year teaching certificate,” said Ekblad, who moved to Montana in 1979 and worked as a ranch hand at the time. “The family joke was that her students would ask her on dates.” He finds it remarkable, but not surprising, that at 19, his mother was willing to risk her job to get equal pay.
Ekblad was raised in a union household. His grandfather was a 50-year member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees and his father was a member of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. Ekblad attended union meetings with his mother and as a high school student, carried a picket when she and her co-workers went on strike to retain the right to due process in the workplace.
Asked if his mother, a lifetime member of the Minnesota Education Association, would be proud of his newest career move —an election by unanimous vote as the sixth executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, he nods.
“She would be ecstatic,” he said.
Ekblad was hired by former Montana AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Jim Murry in 1987. He worked for four the five previous executive secretaries. Today the Montana AFL-CIO has 44,000 members in the state. Ekblad launched his term pledging to give unions that have not been participating in the organization a voice.
Question: What are a few of your short term and long term goals in your new role as the Montana AFL-CIO Executive Secretary?
Answer: During good times, labor membership can get complacent. When things are more difficult, thats when people engage and show their strength. In the short term, we need to work to mobilize our membership and to get more participation. We need to use technology to reach out to younger members and other methods to get our senior members to return. Long term, we have 44,000 people who we need to stand up and show that our issues matter and that we can make a difference. We also need to use vehicles to reach out to nonunion members, to give access to information to working Americans about our organization and if they choose to, give them a place in the labor movement.
Q: How would you describe the overall public image of labor unions right now and specifically, the image of the Montana AFL-CIO?
A: Once you get past the bloggers and spinners, I think in general, there is more of an awareness now of what unions do. As a whole, I think the general public understands that without unions, many of the things we have in the workplace now —breaks, paid sick leave, the right to equal pay, safety rules—wouldn’t be there. I am not sure I’d say they like us, but I think they are aware of what unions are doing.
Q: Ideally, what should the relationship between business and labor unions be?
A: It’s a misconception to say there is nothing but conflict between the two. Think about the last time there was a work-stopping strike in Great Falls. There just aren’t many anymore. When you talk about the relationship between unions and business, you need to talk about the things people don’t see. Unions and business worked together during the last legislative session to get a bonding bill passed, which would have put a lot of people to work. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. Both supported the Otter Creek plant and that has created good jobs for Montana.
In the end, the relationship between the two is based on a negotiation of how the wealth and wages will be divided. What the public often doesn’t see is that ideally, both want to employ strategies that create a win/win situation. Both have the same goal, they want business to be successful.
Q: What is the role of labor unions when it comes to the economic recovery of Montana? the United States?
A: At the end of the day, the recovery will be fueled by people, people who have the opportunity to earn decent wages. Union members are people who spend those wages on Main Street. And that is what will fuel a recovery.
Q: Why should people who are not members of a union be concerned about the future of the Montana AFL-CIO?
A: The labor movement is the line in the sand between what is a poor and a middle class. It is a misconception that unions want to take things from business, nobody benefits from doing that. Without unions, workers don’t have a voice. Workers who are members and those aren’t, benefit from things unions have negotiated for; 40 hour work weeks, weekends, workers compensation for injured workers. Unions support a broad scope of issues that impact everyone.