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President Bill McCarthy addresses the 2018 Minnesota AFL-CIO convention.

MN AFL-CIO president Bill McCarthy retires after 37 years in labor movement

Adapted from the Minneapolis Labor Review, December 18, 2021

By Steve Share, Minneapolis Labor Review editor

MINNEAPOLIS —As a new union member years ago, Bill McCarthy saw the power that workers could wield when they stick together.

McCarthy was working as a bartender at the bar on the top floor of downtown’s  57-story IDS Center. When a fellow bartender arrived late, due to a childcare issue, she was fired on the spot.

“I thought it was so unjust,” McCarthy says. “I just gathered up our co-workers and said, ‘we’re going to support our co-worker and walk off the job.’”

He adds: “It was Friday night. The bar was packed.” The workers — members of what is now UNITE HERE Local 17 — piled into the elevators and went down to the street.

As McCarthy recalls, “it wasn’t even five minutes” before the manager came down and said, “we need you!”

The fired bartender? “They put her back to work” — and she continued to work there many years, McCarthy says.

“I was new to the labor movement but I understood the power of collective action,” McCarthy says.

President of the Minnesota AFL-CIO since 2015, Bill McCarthy will be retiring February 1, 2022 after a 37-year career as a union member and union leader.

McCarthy, who was a new union steward at the time of that impromptu walk-out, first joined Local 17 in 1985 and went on to become a business agent for Local 17 and the union’s elected president. As Local 17 president, McCarthy led hundreds of Minneapolis hotel workers in their landmark strike in 2000.|

In 2002, McCarthy won a close election to become president of what is now the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. He served in that role nearly 14 years before winning election as Minnesota AFL-CIO president.

Looking back at his career, McCarthy says, “each step has helped me and trained me to become a better leader as a state federation president.”|

“My goal with each of the big leadership positions I’ve held — you want to make the organization better and stronger and more responsive to the members,” McCarthy says.

And whether building power for workers means taking workers out into the streets, or winning government policies to support workers’ rights, or electing labor-endorsed candidates to public office, the goal is organizing, McCarthy says. “Politics and organizing and policy work — when it supports organizing, it’s all organizing.”|

Organizing, of course, is all about building relationships.|

And years after he left his work at Local 17, McCarthy can still walk into a union restaurant or banquet hall at a union hotel and greet workers by name.
“I’m proud of the fact I have those strong relationships,” he says. “We start out telling the old war stories.”|

Sharing those stories, McCarthy says, is important. “It’s about building the movement.” Longtime workers should “tell their brothers and sisters what they went through to get the benefits package they have today.”

The bartender who won her job back when her co-workers walked off the job? “She tells that story all the time, too,” he says.

In 2021, McCarthy notes, polls show a strong majority of workers would join a union at their worksite if they had the opportunity. But current labor laws can give employers the upper hand and make organizing difficult. “They system needs to be overhauled,” McCarthy says.

“We can see a change in some of the laws through the ‘Build Back Better’ act, federal legislation currently proposed by the Biden administration, he says. If the labor law reforms included ‘Build Back Better’ pass, “we’ll be in a much better place.”

In years past, McCarthy acknowledges, “some [unions] have shied away from that culture of organizing we once had.”

When McCarthy was at Local 17, he says, the union had an organizing department. “We were organizing like crazy.”

With  a recent wave of successful union organizing — and the prospect of new labor laws making organizing easier — “I hope to see the unions take that on in a big way,” he says.

During McCarthy’s nearly 14 years as president of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, he worked to attract more local unions to affiliate and to increase the federation’s capacity. As a result of increased affiliation, the federation grew from a staff of two with no permanent organizing staff to a staff of three full-time organizers led by a full-time campaigns manager.

Also, as MRLF president, McCarthy helped to found Working Partnerships, the nonprofit arm of the MRLF, which works  to assist union members in need and promote civic engagement.

McCarthy served on numerous community boards, including Greater Twin Cities United Way. In 2012, McCarthy was the winner of a national United Way award for labor leadership, the Joseph A. Beirne Community Services Award.

McCarthy also serves as a board member of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, charged by the legislature with building and operating the new Minnesota Vikings football stadium. In that role, he worked to ensure that the construction and operation of the stadium was performed by union workers covered by collective bargaining agreements.

Elected Minnesota AFL-CIO president in 2015, McCarthy led the state’s labor movement through the challenges of the Trump administration and through the past two especially tumultuous years which brought the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 presidential election, and the civil unrest following the police murder of George Floyd.

Faced with the pandemic, “we had to shift and figure out how to do our work and deliver the union vote for the presidential campaign,” he says. AFL-CIO endorsed Joe Biden won the state. “It was just incredible, the union turnout,” McCarthy says.

“I’m so proud of our work around racial equity and racial justice,” McCarthy adds. In the past, “we haven’t been where we should be — and we’ve failed in many ways — but right now we’re in a leadership role.”

“We’ve come out so much stronger,” he believes. “I’m really proud to be leader of the state federation when all of this is going on.”

That was McCarthy’s goal as Minnesota AFL-CIO president: to make the state federation stronger.

When McCarthy became president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, he says, “there wasn’t a lot of teamwork. Employees were siloed into their own areas.”

He want to pull the staff together as a team and, now, he says, “I’m so proud of our team… The team I have, they’re really good at what they do… They support each other, which makes my job easier.”

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t speak about the people who worked for me,” McCarthy says, naming individuals who served under his leadership at UNITE HERE Local 17, the MRLF and the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

At a farewell party September 9, 2015, when Bill McCarthy stepped down as president of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, he posed for a photo with young labor leaders who he hired over the years to direct the MRLF’s political program. Left to right: Anna Brelje, McCarthy, Kyle Makarios, and Chelsie Glaubitz-Gabiou, who was elected to succeed McCarthy as MRLF president.

“A leader can’t be successful without the people supporting him or her,” he says. “I may have a vision of what I want to do but they’re the ones carrying it out.”

McCarthy says he originally planned to retire in 2020, but stayed on because of the pandemic.

Retiring as 2022 begins, he says, will put incoming Minnesota AFL-CIO president Bernie Burnham in place at the beginning of the 2022 legislative session and 2022 election cycle.

“I’m 68 now; I’ve been looking forward to retirement,” McCarthy says. “It’s been a good run. The labor movement has been good to me.”

In retirement, McCarthy says he hopes to travel with his wife, Marie. McCarthy has two grown daughters five grandchildren, and one great grandchild.

Related story:
> MN AFL-CIO elects Bernie Burnham as new president
(Minneapolis Labor Review, 12-18-21)

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