The UFCW Local 21 set an ambitious goal of identifying, recruiting, and training 4500 of the next generation of labor leaders over the next two years. How is that effort going? Luckily, Faye Guenther, the president of UFCW Local 21, is here to give an update and share how laughter helped bring her diverse team together.

Some highlights from The 4500: Identifying and Recruiting the Next Generation of Labor Leaders include:

01:17 – Rethinking the Idea of Team

06:17 – Diversity and Inclusion at the UFCW Local 21 

06:17 – Diversity and Inclusion at the UFCW Local 21

11:07 – Identifying, Recruiting & Training 4500 Leaders

14:05 – The Initiatives: From Social Justice to Legal Cannabis

16:55 – Retirement and Unionism

Narrator  0:02  

This is the World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds podcast with Traci Dority-Shanklin. If you’re interested in labor union benefit funds, well, you’ve landed in the right place. We are a go-to source for all things union benefit fund-related, and we are going to bring you interviews with key decision-makers and fund professionals that guide these plans. They’ll share their insights, experience, unique perspectives, all the latest developments, and tips to unlock the mysteries of multiemployer benefit funds. Time is short, so let’s get started.

Traci Shanklin  0:35  

My guest today is Faye Guenther. She is the president of the UFCW Local 21, the largest UFCW local in the country with over 46,000 members, and she is also its first female president. The importance of diversity and inclusion has been the subject of several of our past podcast episodes. Well, not only is Faye the first female president to lead the UFCW Local 21, but her administration is an example of diversity and inclusion. Local 21’s secretary-treasurer is the youngest person of color, and the chief of staff is the first openly gay woman to hold that office. Hi, Faye, are you there?

Faye Guenther  1:16  

I sure am. Hi,

Traci Shanklin  1:17  

Great. I am so excited to speak with you today, we have so much to talk about because there is so much happening at the UFCW Local 21 that I really don’t know where to start. So, I think that I’ll just dive right in. You and Joe, the now secretary-treasurer, started working together in 2008 and set a goal of training the next generation of union leaders. Can you give our listeners a little background about how you met and share some of the experiences that you had together and why you set such a necessary goal of bringing up the next generation of leaders?

Faye Guenther  1:58  

We met at work and he — I always say to survive this work, you have to — you have to find somebody who makes you laugh. And Joe is funny. He’s super, super funny. We met at work, he came in as a project organizer, which is another way we identify and recruit younger leaders. So, he came in and he was working on political, the political campaign, I believe he was actually working on the Obama campaign with us. And him and I became, you know, pretty quickly became friends. And then he became a union rep. I supervise the reps. I was a staff director. And he was always willing to go along with me on these like, crazy ideas. I’d have like pilot project ideas. So, the first pilot project I pitched to him was to go around and meet with every single person he thought was a leader and sit down with that person for coffee and go through their store. 

Faye Guenther  2:44  

Let’s say an Albertsons has 150 people in it. We’d meet with the leader for coffee, and we’d go through the list person-by-person to see if that person thought there was anyone else in the store who had potential leadership who might want to get involved in the union or who might want to get involved. You know, we have a lot of union benefit programs like free college and free language and teams of people who work on political activity. And there’s teams of people that build do community builders; there’s all these different opportunities for people to get involved in our union. But most people just don’t know about them, we would meet one-on-one, we’d go through the list, see where interests were. And our goal was to see if we could triple the number of leaders on his route. My goal was if Joe can do it, maybe he won’t listen to this podcast later. But, if Joe could do it, anybody could do it. Not meaning — he, he was very talented, so it wasn’t that. 

Faye Guenther  3:32  

But, the point of it was, if we could do leadership development in an intensive way on one round, then everybody could do that. He was just willing to do basically pilot project after pilot project with me. We worked on a lot of campaigns together where we, you know, we didn’t win every single thing. But, we were able to effectively pull teams together and win on really important issues, whether it was raising the minimum wage in Seattle, or thinking through scheduling proposals, or for the first time we dug in on a lot of workers were getting fired for making mistakes on WIC checks, which didn’t make sense to us. Anyway, so we dug in; we read all the policies, and we figured out a way to make it much more fair. And workers stopped getting fired for that. They just like, identify the problem, think of a solution, try to implement the solution. And he was always a good partner in that. As I moved up in the organization, I always just pulled him in on all these projects. And then, when Todd Crosby, who was the former president of Local 21, decided to go on to the International, I chose Joe as my secretary-treasurer, and I am very happy because he’s a great partner. He’s super funny, super creative. 

Faye Guenther  4:39  

That’s the only way you can succeed is if you have a team of people, or at least in my opinion if you have a team of really smart people, people that challenge you; people that bring new information to the table. I see a lot of leaders who are like, positional leaders where they want people to like respect their authority or whatever, and don’t bring in the smartest teams around them. And I think that’s a missed opportunity for leadership development and a missed opportunity for doing really dynamic things with a whole team of people. So, we share power; I also believe in shared power models. So, I try to make decisions collaboratively with the team and bring as many people to the decision-making table as possible. And, and because of that, I think that’s how we can get so many different things done.

Traci Shanklin  5:22  

Sounds amazing. I think people need to take a page out of your book and more organizations need to work this way more corporate organizations as well, is something that I think is sorely missing really is this idea of team. I think that sometimes we get bogged down with meetings that don’t accomplish anything, but a team that has the ability to brainstorm and collaboratively work together to come up with solutions and implement them that makes all the difference, it makes a difference in your joy for work to because you know that you are valued, and you’re contributing a really important piece to the puzzle, so I applaud that. You lead a really diverse and young slate of officers and members. How has that shaped UFCW Local 21’s reaction to modern movements, like Black Lives Matter and Time’s Up?

Faye Guenther  6:17  

We have been working with our membership around these issues doing deep education around racial justice and racial equity, gender justice, and gender equity. We’ve been doing multiple trainings for quite some time bringing in Race Forward, which does anti-bias training and teaches people about their own biases. And we have our staff, our board members, our leaders come in to get those trainings, so that we can have complicated, difficult conversations about race and not shy away from those conversations, and then also put workers at the center of what the solution can look like around racial justice and racial equity, gender justice, and gender equity, and also climate justice, which is both related to racial justice and gender justice. They’re all you know, intertwined. There’s an intersectionality between them. But, since I’ve been here, and the things that I can control, we’ve been trying to do deep conversations with the staff so that they can talk with members, deep conversations with members. So, we can have real conversations about race and gender, and climate and not just have people yelling at each other. 

Faye Guenther  7:25  

There’s such a political divide right now in the country. If you’re this group, you believe this. And if you’re this group, you believe that, but the wonderful thing about a union is it brings people from all different backgrounds together. And you have to have conversations about how you want to see your workplace function. And you have the right to bargain over what you want to see in your workplace. So, you can take racial justice and gender justice, and climate justice and turn it into real proposals and real solutions at your bargaining tables. Climate Justice, for example, if all workers had bus passes, free bus passes, that would be something that would help probably create equity, both racial justice/equity, gender justice/equity, and it would reduce pollution, which helps stop climate change. I think that the labor movement can be one of the most effective places for us to have real conversations, difficult conversations, and then find real solutions that we bargain at the bargaining table or we create policy and pass at the local state, or federal level.

Traci Shanklin  8:24  

You have so many great ideas, and it sounds like you’ve implemented much of them or many of them. And this is more of a personal question, but have you struggled with being taken seriously, or having your voice heard by members, employers, leaders?

Faye Guenther  8:39  

I always have members with me, and I always enjoy listening and talking with members, I’m surrounded by members and members are with me all the time. So, I feel like that hasn’t been an issue. On the employer side, they might try to dismiss members. Or they might try to say the members’ stories aren’t — when you hear a member’s story about what it’s like to take care of their first COVID patient or to deal with an angry customer or a bully boss like it’s pretty hard to not listen to them. So, we try to train ourselves to use story to make our points and not just statistics or facts. And it’s not just an argument here or there. We’re telling people’s stories. So, I think the employers, they may — maybe on occasion have decided not to take me seriously, but I think just by building relationships, and also it’s about power. So, if members are willing to take militant actions and build for a strike and do what’s necessary to fight to win, pretty soon people have to take you seriously or the consequences are not great. So, member power, kind of with the employer community. There I feel like people do take the members of UFCW 21 seriously. I’m elected to lead that. 

Faye Guenther  10:00  

Sometimes, I think it’s harder for some other people who have positions of power in labor. I think we do have a lot of ideas about how to make improvements. And we have a lot of ideas about member democracy. We think every member should be able to vote and be part of every bargaining table, and every part of their union. I was really moving an issue around Black Lives Matter, even trying to get a button with everybody signed on it. And I think there was some pushback in that, “Well, you shouldn’t be focused on that you should be focused on wages, or you should be focused on this.” And, you know, what I would say is, I’m lucky because I had a lot of mentorship from different people. And I have a lot of people blocking out for me. I see women and people of color around me dismissed. Different labor leaders, even here in the state of Washington that are women and people of color, attacks that come at them that would never come at a male labor leader, I don’t think, but thus far, I’ve been pretty lucky. But, I know that I could have difficulties. And I always try to stand in solidarity with women and people of color as they’re on their leadership journey. Because it is hard. Well, it’s hard to get in the door. And once you get in the door, you are held to different standards.

Traci Shanklin  11:07  

There was an article about you in The Stand in which you defined your team’s core agenda as identifying, recruiting, and training new member leaders. I read and I think I mentioned to or I alluded to this earlier that you — your goal was to train 4500 leaders over the next two years. And I’d love to know how this effort is going.

Faye Guenther  11:28  

Well, it’s hard, but I would say so our goal is to get to 4500. And we had that goal. We’ve had that goal for a little while. When I first got here in 2008, we had probably about 260/300 stewards identified and kind of listed as stewards. And every year after that, we’ve been building that. I’m not taking full credit for that at all because Dave Schmitz, who was the president, and Todd Crosby were totally dedicated to leadership development. And we actually made a structural change in 2009. We had an all-staff retreat where we basically said, you have to have half of your time that you’re spending in the field identifying, recruiting, and training leaders. And you have to each have 50 leaders that you’re identifying and recruiting. There was a lot of support organizationally for leadership development. And since then, we’ve just been working training, you know, reps, how to identify; how to recruit; how to train leaders. Steward trainings after steward trainings, working with the steward and the board about how to identify, recruit, and train leaders, leadership development trainings, and after training. 

Faye Guenther  12:32  

We finally got to 2500 and like 60, which is a lot and we’re super proud to have moved the needle, but we have to reassess, “Okay, what’s working, what’s not working? What are the blocking issues?” And of those 2500 and something stewards? Did they get consistent training? Do they feel like they’re getting to lead? Are they getting embedded in a campaign where you can learn the skills? And the skills we’re trying to teach is like, how to build collective power; how to talk to people and listen to people and identify issues that will unify folks, so they’ll take action together to fight for a better future. We still have a long ways to go. And right now, we’re going to do exec retreat where we sort of say, “Okay, we’ve hit this new ceiling, what is it going to take to breakthrough? Is it a staffing issue? Is it a content issue of the training? Is it COVID and we’re not meeting in person? Is it people are sick of Zooms,” like, we’re going to do a full dismantling of why we’re hitting the ceiling and see if we can put together a plan that gets us to the next step. 

Faye Guenther  13:33  

We have an assigned person. Their job is to think about this all the time. And then we’re all going to come together and say, “Okay, it’s all of our responsibilities to identify, recruit, and train leaders. We’ve hit sort of a new ceiling, which is a ceiling I’m proud of. But, if we’re really going to have a militant rank and file union, where members are at every bargaining table, and they’re trained, and they’re trained on how to deal with issues directly right in the workplace, we need about 4500 leaders. At least, that’s what our assessment is. And so, we’re just gonna keep digging in until we figure it out. 

Traci Shanklin  14:05  

Have any of your initiatives gotten the attention of the UFCW international headquarters in DC or in the state of Washington?

Faye Guenther  14:15  

Well, our racial justice platform was adopted. We wrote resolutions that were adopted by the Washington State Labor Council, and now the Washington State Labor Council has a race and labor division which we helped fund. So, I think our vision about how to move racial justice and racial equity is being moved here in the local labor community. We also recently rejoined the King County CLC, where we’ve been doing a lot of work around racial justice and racial equity. I would say that’s an example of some of our initiatives. We’re building unity around those and getting others involved in that. 

Faye Guenther  14:52  

I think on the International side, our cannabis division I’m really excited about the work with our cannabis division and, and our work with workforce development and training. We’re launching a We Train Washington training program that for lower-wage workers. We have a meat cutters apprenticeship program. We’re building out a fishmonger program. And I think some of that work we’ve been doing helped influence — I don’t know if helped influence. I don’t want to take credit for anything I shouldn’t, but now, Lynn Dotson is at the International. She’s leading up the new position of workforce development position. 

Faye Guenther  15:24  

And we just launched the National Cannabis JATC to train cannabis workers on all different parts of the cannabis industry from seed all the way to sale. And I’m actually the chair of that National JATC really digging in on how to professionalize the industry; how to ensure that it’s a safe industry. It’s very fast-growing, and so like, how do you make sure workers get to be at the center of the profit and the center of the benefits of that industry expanding? So, I think workforce development is probably the place that we’ve had the most influence. I don’t know if it’s influenced. But, we’re collaborating the most with the International. 

Traci Shanklin  16:03  

So, we just talked about the training of new leaders and how ambitious but essential that goal is. I know you know that support for unions is at an all-time high, and people between 18 and 29 hold a favorable view of labor unions. Even though millennials and Gen Z tend to view labor favorably, they’re underestimating some of the benefits of labor unions. They seem to understand that they will make more money than their nonunion counterparts. However, I spoke to a millennial organizer and asked him what they expect in a retirement fund. And he surprised me by saying that he thought that the pension idea had gone away. Are you finding this sentiment is confirmed with your membership?

Faye Guenther  16:55  

UFCW across the nation has the one of the youngest memberships I think of any union. And I maybe could be wrong, but I think that’s right. And we actually have over in just the UFCW 21, over 800 workers under the age of 18, which is very rare. Those are folks working inside of grocery stores. I would just say that if you go in and talk with people about what kind of life they want to lead, people want to be able to retire someday, and they want to be able to have enough money to take care of themselves when they retire. And most young workers have a mom or a dad or a grandparent who is getting to that age. And unfortunately, because so many people don’t have any retirement savings or very little or they’re trying to survive off of social security, our grocery store workers are young grocery store workers and healthcare workers and other workers are kind of stuck in this situation where their parents and grandparents don’t have enough of what they need, and they’re watching them struggle. 

Faye Guenther  17:52  

And one of the things that, you know, I’ve taken a deeper look at is that the poverty rate for women is at its highest after women retire. I think people know that most moms are struggling; grandparents are struggling just to get by. And it’s linked to not having a secure pension and not having, you know, a secure way to have an income after you leave the workforce. So, I would just say, if you went in and said to somebody, “Do you believe in defined benefit pensions?” They’d be like, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” But, if you go in and say, “Do you hope that someday you can retire and maybe go on vacation somewhere or take care of yourself? Or do you have a mom or dad or grandparent or somebody in your life that is retired? And are they doing okay?” And if you talk to folks about their life experiences, every person cares about a secure way to live after you no longer work in my humble opinion.

Traci Shanklin  18:50  

I agree. I agree. 100%. But, do you think that the idea of retirement is being linked to unionism and that the next and up-and-coming generations are making active choices to be in the union?

Faye Guenther  19:06  

Well, to that question, I would say, we’re at the lowest level we’ve ever been in terms of unionization. We’re actually shrinking the unions. The labor movement is still not growing. Most people have never even gotten to have the experience of being in a union. And we don’t learn about it in school. We don’t learn about it anywhere. That’s one of the reasons I think labor is really trying to pass the PRO Act and to make sure that workers have a more fair way to join the union. When workers try to organize a union, and I’ve helped 1000s of workers organize a union, but when they do try to organize, it’s very difficult. Bosses try to intimidate some workers; they threaten to fire; they do all kinds of stuff. And that’s not an even playing field for workers. 

Faye Guenther  19:45  

We just had a group of cannabis workers here organized a few weeks ago and the three workers that were on the organizing committee got fired by management. We have charges filed; we’re going to figure out how to, you know, that I think we’re going to win our charges and those workers are going to be ordered back to work, but imagine you get fired for trying to organize a work — a union, then you win your case and get ordered back to work. It shouldn’t be that hard for workers to join a union. Once there’s a more even playing field, I think, more and more workers will join a union. And when more workers join unions will see better wages, better pensions, better healthcare, and hopefully, more of their fair share of what workers should be earning.

Traci Shanklin  20:25  

One of the reasons I created this podcast was really to get out the stories. I loved what you said earlier about telling the story or leading with story. I think that what you just said just really sums it up is that we have to be more proactive, sharing the good work and the community and the support you get and the livable wage and the retirement and all the meatier benefits, as well. It’s a real frustration for me that people don’t know more about unions, so I hear what you’re saying, and hope that we can turn the tide in terms of organizing and really spreading the word of the benefits of being a part of collective bargaining group and a union. 

Traci Shanklin  21:15  

Since I’m running a little low on time, I’m going to pause our conversation with Faye Guenther, the president of the UFCW Local 21. I hope you’ll join us for the next episode when Faye returns to the podcast. Faye will be talking about leading the UFCW Local 21 as the first female president in the middle of a pandemic. You won’t want to miss it. If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, please subscribe to the World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds and share us with your friends. You can help us grow our listeners by sharing your favorite episodes on social media and tagging your friends. As always, you can find the World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcast, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and many other podcast platforms. Join our mailing list to receive our monthly newsletter at our website at www.multiemployerfunds.com. That’s www.multiemployerfunds.com. Thanks again for joining the conversation where listeners connect with leading experts throughout the multiemployer world. Be part of the change. 

Traci Shanklin  22:28  

And that’s it for this week’s episode of the World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds podcast. We’d love to hear from you. And if you have any comments, questions or suggestions, head over to www.multiemployerfunds.com and let us know. Thank you for joining us and we look forward to next time.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai