He is gruff and often combative, principled and usually blunt. But above all else, Bernie Hesse is a trade unionist.
From his days as a grocery clerk to his current work as director of special projects for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189, Hesse has made himself ubiquitous in St. Paul’s labor community. If you’ve walked a picket line or joined a get-out-the-vote effort sometime in the last two decades, chances are you’ve crossed his path.
Hesse worked the night shift at Lunds before taking a full-time job with his union in 2001, and he draws from a seemingly endless store of energy and dogged optimism about what working people can accomplish by coming together. It’s why news of his retirement, effective July 7, caught some – including this reporter – by surprise.
Hesse explained that decision and more in this interview, which has been edited for length.
UA: How did you end up working for your union?
BH: Bill Pearson (then president of UFCW Local 789) said he’d like me to start running some program around Walmart, around immigration and around organizing we were doing. Later, we took more of an active role in political and legislative action. Now, low and behold, it’s 2017, and there are some things we’ve been good at and some we need to be better at.
UA: Can you elaborate?
BH: I think we’ve raised awareness that you can work in retail and have a living wage. I think we’ve demonstrated that when we work with other groups we can raise the minimum wage, we can make sure people have a net to fall on or fall into when it comes to health insurance, and we’ve raised the bar for labor standards in Minnesota, for not just retail workers but a lot of service-sector jobs. We also decided that if we were going to survive and thrive, we were going to organize cannabis, co-ops and canneries (food processing). We’ve got active campaigns going with all three now. But we haven’t figured out yet how to make that connection with Walmart workers or Target workers. We haven’t figured out how we can organize big-box retailers.
UA: Seems like that’s been the white whale for some time. Is it possible in this organizing climate?
BH: I don’t think there’s ever a good or a bad time to organize. When things are good, people are happy, so that’s not the right time. But when things are bad, people are afraid of losing their jobs. We just haven’t been able to build enough connections with workers for them to see us as a real option.
UA: That work of trying to make connections – whether in politics or union organizing – makes a lot of people uncomfortable. What’s your approach?
BH: When we talk about values, we have success. We’re in crisis, and I think people really will value the work we’ve done, whether it’s in making health care affordable or making sure kids have decent schools. That’s why even though we don’t represent workers in school districts, (Local 1189) still supports campaigns to fund these schools. We don’t represent people in transportation, but we support light rail and bus lines. We’re all in this together. My disappointment with the movement of late is there’s too many groups going back into their silos. There has to be a rediscovery of what solidarity is. To me, it means making that sacrifice for another worker, even though that may not be your issue. Don’t do something out of charity, do it out of solidarity.
UA: Is that something that’s changed since you began your union activism?
BH: People used to dive into campaigns more, even though it may not have been their sector. Some of the strikes we had in the 1980s, you had electricians standing with meatpackers standing with postal workers standing with retail clerks. As things have become more challenging, I see more of the bunker mentality. I challenge people on that.
UA: Is this as challenging a time for labor as you’ve lived through?
BH: We’re entering into a new reality, and it’s going to redefine what being a union member is. It’s no longer going to be just about paying your dues, it’s going to be about owning your local. We operate in Wisconsin, a Right to Work state, and we see it. People take ownership of their local when they’re challenged, and leaders emerge.
UA: For many local labor activists, you’re kind of the model for walking the talk. Who’s inspired you?
BH: Dale Johnson, one of our retired reps, taught me the importance of organizing. I always looked at Tom Laney back when he was at the Ford plant – he was a wild man – and all the guys down at P-9 for what they did. On a national level, I had the honor of meeting Tony Mazzocchi from the OCAW and Delores Huerta many, many years ago. What always inspired me was when you had some organizing or other campaign going on because that just created this positive energy.
UA: Golf? Fish? What’s retired Bernie going to do?
BH: Certainly I’ll be wetting a line and wetting some other stuff. But I don’t have a lake cabin and I don’t golf, so I guess I’ll just have to stick around. There will be other causes or crusades I’ll be in on. And I look forward to the 2018 governor’s race… I haven’t given up. I think this is the movement that lifts people up.