Top Leadership Changes at Council

AFSCME Council 5 has a new executive director.

John Westmoreland, the former assistant director, started his role Nov. 1.

He replaces Council 5’s founding director Eliot Seide, who is retiring.

“Our union is in good hands,” Seide says.  “Under John’s leadership, our union won’t miss a beat as we continue our program with energy and discipline.”    

Westmoreland says he plans to meet with leaders of every local and build “a coalition of the willing.”

“I want to empower people,” he says. “If I can do it, there’s no reason they can’t. If someone asks me a contract question, even if I know the answer, let’s look it up together. I’m not going to vend answers. I will help you find them. What do you need from me to be able to accomplish that goal? I don’t like fixing things – I like resolving them.”

Westmoreland says he believes in building teams and relationships, good communication, methodical attention to detail and following through.

Before he was Council 5’s assistant director, Westmoreland was the northern field director; a field representative for Council 5 and Council 6; and an elections project organizer. Prior to that, he worked as a correctional officer in Stillwater, where he served multiple roles in Local 600 from steward to president, served on the corrections Negotiations Master Team, chaired the Corrections Policy Committee and served on the Council 6 Executive Board.

Does your family have a union background?

My dad was a 49er (IUOE Local 49). He was a 49er all his life. My mother was a financial worker in Pine County. Now that my dad has passed away, my mother still gets her portion of his pension. My maternal grandfather was a Teamster. There was a union ethic in my household growing up. It was just part of who you were.

How do you get involved in the labor movement?

I got active as a steward with AFSCME Local 600 (DOC Stillwater).

Why was it important to you to be involved?

When you work in a prison, you join your coworkers. The grievances that we had mattered to us, and it’s more than just grievances, it’s management, bargaining, communicating with each other. I felt we should have the capacity as members, as stewards, as activists to know what was best for us. I got active and got a bunch of my coworkers active so we could deal with our terms and conditions of employment.

They understaffed us. They had a term called vacancies for salary savings. They treated it like a bank account. They would adjust their staffing based on their budgetary needs. It drove OT, it drove the focus on leave, whether it was vacation or sick leave, how we staffed, who we staffed. It was potentially dangerous. We wanted to keep the institution, the staff and the public safe.

I spent a bunch of time lobbying for staffing and against the privatization efforts being made in corrections. We got funding for 116 positions in three facilities. Rush City Correctional Facility, I worked with the department, the community, legislators, other COs. It took a coalition of a bunch of different people from a bunch of different places to get that built and operated publicly.

Together you can get things done. It’s the power of more voices, solidarity, and the coalition of the willing.

How did you come to the work at the Council?

I was very active in the local. I had spent a lot of time working with the staff. I applied here multiple times, wanting to become a bigger part of the Council. The privatization of public services was clearly wrong.

The more I saw, the more I wanted to get involved, the more I realized I could build coalitions and relationships with other groups of people.

How would you describe your philosophy?

I’m very big on modeling behavior. You’re not modeling behavior if you’re just fixing stuff, if you’re just a vending machine for answers. You want to be empowering people to be their own solution.

My retired field representative Sid Helseth, he was a great mentor. When it came to lobbying at the Capitol, Sid would say, ‘You’re the expert, you need to be the one down there.’ He didn’t feel the need to be the spokesperson, he would challenge you and guide you. At the point you raised an issue, he would say, ‘Great, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to fix it?’

The ultimate thing I understood from Sid is this is about relationships. Whoever you’re dealing with, it’s about relationships. Some are good and some are bad, but you still need relationships and you need to understand each other.

What are your biggest achievements in Council 5?

The biggest accomplishment was changing the way we delivered field services in Duluth (a model he’s since brought to the entire Council). We started a pilot project, the team concept. The staff was integrated with each other. You weren’t siloed into your assignment, everything was shared work.

Before, what always bothered me was if you were out sick and I’m the local president, I didn’t have anybody to go to. With the new approach, if you were sick or on vacation, somebody else would be there to pick it up. It broadened the relationships into the whole team. Local presidents didn’t just know their field rep, they knew all of the field reps. Employers couldn’t get comfortable with, ‘We know John will be here, we’ll just fix it with him.’ I might not be the one to show up. Everything became what I call a class project.

It also brought the staff together as a team, recognizing the magic is in communicating with each other and helping each other, knowing what you’re all dealing with so anybody can be of help. Many people have pieces of the answer to a question. If I assume I have the answer, it assumes there is only one answer and I have the right one. That doesn’t work. Together, we can come up with a solution.

What are some of your other achievements?

We had a lot of crises going on that gave us huge opportunities. Friedrichs was about to be heard. I always look at what needs to happen for something to be a success.

We changed the recommitment (MoM) cards.

In the last two years, we have done more to change how we build, interact with and utilize our data and analytics than we had in the previous 10 years because I approach everything with, why can’t we? Everything we do, how do we know if it has value if we can’t measure it, if we can’t share that progress?

We brought MemberLink online so members can access their own information. It’s their information. You’ve got to share as much as you can possibly bear.

The stuff that can be done and should be done through those programs, with a touch of a finger, it gives you more time for a conversation. Now workers and activists can spend time talking about other things, like how’s your family? They can get back to building relationships.

One of the things I’m most proud of in this role is rebuilding our relationship between field services and the international union. That’s something that has paid huge dividends. There are such resources from the other affiliates and the international union that we were not tapping into. I just went out and played sponge and took whatever we could get, anyway we could get it.

Like the MAC (Member Action Center). That wasn’t just me. Eliot kept saying we should explore this. I jumped all over it. SEIU, it was already there. I was willing to take advantage of the things that were already there. There was a report done, there was one paragraph that got my attention that told me we had to do this. It talked about dedicating your resources and untangling your workload.

Two of the things members care about are, where is my grievance? And why can’t anybody answer a simple question?

Our policies were fine, our execution was awful.

If you’re out in the field, you’re not answering your desk phone. If you’re in a conversation, you’re not answering a cell phone. If you’re out there being effective, you’re not back here processing those files. The staff was too busy to get to the files, and they weren’t answering phones because they weren’t here.

We had grievance cases that had not been processed that were two years old. Grievances, if you can’t get to it for a month, it doesn’t matter if it’s a winner or a loser. The employer knows there’s no recourse. They can make any decision they want because nobody is going to get to it for a long time.

There is no justice in waiting. Delaying justice is an injustice.

It was important to fix that problem. We’re now within three months of the final employer step to being ready to go arbitration.

The phones get answered, always.

That attention to detail has always been my focus. You need to be methodical.

You need to think it through and then carry it out.

You can have the greatest plans on the planet. If you can’t carry them out, it doesn’t mean anything.

Where do you hope to take Council 5?

This is a great council. Our legacy, we are second to none. We are both leaders and learners. But we can always be better, and I will strive for this to be the best union for our members that it can be.

I’m going to begin by meeting with every local’s leadership and find out what’s important to them, and help them see what’s important to them is not different from what is important to me or this Council. It’s what we have in common we need to focus on, not what we have in difference.

The pressure of external forces are driving this to be a committee of the willing. I need to find and grow that committee of the willing. It starts with me, it starts with the staff, it starts with elected leaders and every member who is involved.

This is all relational. My goal is to build relationships with the leaders and help facilitate a better relationship between them, the staff and field directors. I should be building relationships with people who have relationships with other people in their work areas, so they can ask that question. But it just doesn’t come from activists and leaders, it comes from coworkers, people wanting to join each other. You will join a friend before you will join an ambiguous anybody.

I do have a drive toward people being flexible in their capacity. We’ve done a lot with the field reps and organizers working on stuff and running stuff together, organizing, running a vote, you name it. The more we are able to see ourselves assisting, regardless of the task, the better we’re going to be able to manage the future.

We can’t dictate what’s coming at us but we can dictate our capacity to manage it.

What challenges are we facing and how should we deal with them?

We’ve been preparing for Janus - the overturning of Abood - for two years. It’s coming. We have to shift gears a little bit from preparing for it to surviving in it.

But I think the greatest challenge we face in this next year is the 2018 governor’s election, bar none. ‘Right to work’ won’t end us, the loss of collective bargaining will. We cannot allow that to happen, we cannot lose the 2018 governor’s race. There is nothing wrong with our labor laws, and we need to make sure we elect a governor who will defend them and won’t change them in any form.

Is there anything our members should know about you they don’t?

I’m a member, I’ve been a member for 32 years, I will always be a member.

I believe in our union. I have no idea how not to be a member of this union. It is who I am.