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Dan Gustafson, who led Minnesota AFL-CIO,
dies at age 91

Gustafson’s legacy includes building the United Labor Centre, founding Union Bank

From the Minneapolis Labor Review, April 19, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS — A plasterer by trade, Dan W. Gustafson, Jr. became an apprentice in 1947 and rose through the ranks of organized labor. He eventually led the Minnesota AFL-CIO as its president from 1985 to 1991. But Gustafson, who died March 21 at age 91, also leaves a lasting legacy in the form of the Union Bank & Trust, which he helped to found, and the United Labor Centre office building, which also came to be as a result of his leadership.

“He was a born labor leader,” said Ray Waldron, who followed in Gustafson’s footsteps to serve as Minnesota AFL-CIO president from 2001-2009. “He was a lifetime coach for me and other labor leaders.”

“Minnesota’s labor movement has lost a true champion for working people,” said current Minnesota AFL-CIO president Bill McCarthy. “When big business tried to weaken Minnesota’s workers compensation system and labor protections in the 1980s, Dan Gustafson led the effort that stopped those attacks.”

Although Gustafson retired as Minnesota AFL-CIO president in 1991, he continued to serve as chairman of Union Bank for many years and also as president of the Labor Temple Association, which owns the United Labor Centre.

“Danny served on the board of Union Bank & Trust Company for 42 consecutive years, 35 of those years as chairman,” said Jeff Schrempp, the bank’s current president. “I think the Bank was a crown jewel for him, although he never boasted, always giving credit to the employees.”

“One of Danny’s endearing attributes was that he was respected by all, even by those that were on the other side of the issues, primarily because he fully understood and carefully listened to the passion of others,” Schrempp added.

Dan Gustafson

April 2016: Dan Gustafson celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1976 founding of Union Bank & Trust and the opening of the United Labor Centre at the corner of Central and University in Minneapolis.
Photo: Minneapolis Labor Review

In back issues of the Labor Review, in recent interviews and in posts on Facebook, labor colleagues, politicians and journalists alike described Gustafson as a dedicated trade unionist who was straight-shooter, who always spoke the truth and who always kept his word.

Nelllie Stone Johnson, Minnesota’s ground-breaking civil rights leader and labor leader, wrote a June 14, 1985 open letter to Gustafson published in the Labor Review: “You are the most compassionate and articulate spokesman for working men and women in all of Minnesota…Load up your guns, Danny; and go get ‘em!! Minnesota’s working men and women need your good heart and strong voice.”

Former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson commented on Facebook after Gustafson’s death: “Dan Gustafson was far more than a labor leader. Like his colleague and mentor, Dave Roe, he was an influential and dedicated Minnesota giant who truly understood the vital importance of the middle class and always supported efforts to expand it. Gustafson will always be remembered as one of the Greats.”

“Whether you agreed with him or not, Dan always forcefully fought for workers’ interests and remembered who was on his side and who wasn’t,” Ken Peterson commented on Facebook. “In the late 1980s, Danny headed the state AFL-CIO and I was Labor and Industry Commissioner. Workers compensation was a bitter legislative issue which my boss, [Governor] Rudy Perpich, dearly wanted resolved. One day I briefed him on a compromise proposed by moderate DFLer Sen. Keith Langseth. As I went through it on a section by section basis, the Governor would nod approvingly and say things like ‘Great idea’ and ‘Keith has got a really good bill.’ When I finished my overview, I said, ‘there’s one more thing; Danny doesn’t like this bill.’ The Governor paused and then said, ‘Neither do I. It’s a terrible bill. Make sure it doesn’t pass.’ Dan was an extraordinary leader of working people and a good friend and mentor to me and many others. He’ll be missed.”

John See of the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service commented on Facebook: “You knew where you stood with Dan, he didn’t mince words, he was fair and honest, and 101 percent in the working person’s corner. A brilliant mind for politics and finances and history and how it all fits together. Another of the truly Good Guys who have passed so recently.”

“I liked the contrast between the gruff exterior and his big heart,” commented longtime Twin Cities journalist Karen Boros. “He also did his homework.”

“Dan treated women labor leaders like any other leader — with respect and ‘great expectations’ that you were up to the job,” said Louise Sundin, former president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, longtime member of the Minnesota AFL-CIO’s general board, and longtime executive vice president of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation. “And, if you fancied yourself a leader, then he expected you to LEAD.  Take the hard stance, do the right thing, stand up for your members. He modeled those beliefs and behaviors.”

Sundin recalled one conflict with Gustafson — when the Fringe Benefit bar located at the United Labor Centre staged lingerie shows to attract more business. “It was the mid-1970s and the women’s rights movement was in full swing and the feminists weren’t pleased. So, I organized a group of women unionists and we picketed the lingerie shows at the Fringe Benefit. It wasn’t long before they disappeared. I’m not sure Danny ever forgave me for that. But, we did laugh about it often!”

Born in 1927 in Minneapolis, Gustafson attended Patrick Henry High School and Dunwoody Technical Institute. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. Gustafson followed his father into the plasterers trade, becoming an apprentice in 1947. From 1955 to 1966, he served as business representative for Plasterers Local 65. He was elected business manager of the Minneapolis Building Trades Council in the 1960s and in 1974 he was elected president of the Minnesota State Building Trades Council.

Gustafson served as secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO from 1978-1984 and, following the retirement of his mentor Dave Roe, served as president of the state federation from 1985-1991.

When the idea to create a union-owned bank became Gustafson’s mission in the mid-1970s, he went to union meeting upon union meeting to raise millions in capital to launch the bank.

“We saw that all kinds of firms were getting rich off money that belonged to the workers. We figured we ought to have something to say about what happens in the financial community,” Gustafson said on the occasion of the bank’s fifth anniversary, the Labor Review reported.

About three years ago, Gustafson persuaded Russ Scherber, business manager of Pipefitters Local 539, to take on the leadership of the Labor Temple Association, which owns the United Labor Centre — where Union Bank is located.

Scherber got schooled in Gustafson’s ways of leadership. Scherber  related a lesson from Gustafson: “‘Not everything you’re going to do as a leader is popular,’ he said, ‘but stick with what’s right.’”

“He was a big picture guy. That’s how he led,” Scherber said. “I just wish there were more people like him today.”

‘We saw that all kinds of firms were getting rich off money that belonged to the workers. We figured we ought to have something to say about what happens in the financial community.’
—Dan Gustafson, founder of Union Bank & Trust

Dan Gustafson 1976

March 1976: Photo of Dan Gustafson in the Minneapolis Labor Review accompanying story about the grand opening of Union Bank.
Photo: Minneapolis Labor Review


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