Labor Goes to Summer School

Labor activists from the Rocky Mountain states gather every summer for a weeklong school aimed at developing more effective unions. Photo: Grace Carroll Rocky Mountain Labor School

One hundred fifty labor activists from the Mountain States gathered in Reno in July for a week of courses on labor law, labor history, collective bargaining, grievances and arbitration, internal organizing, and more.

The yearly Grace Carroll Rocky Mountain Labor School, founded in 1957, is the last surviving of five regional schools established by the AFL-CIO in the ’50s. It draws from eight states: Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Colorado.

Retired labor lawyer Wally Brauer, who’s been teaching there since the ’80s, said the school’s unofficial motto is “to help trade unionists do what they must do, better.”

Similar schools, specifically for women, are offered in four locations each summer by the United Association of Labor Educators. (See box.)

Andrew Gutierrez, who works on the bun line at a Bimbo Bakery plant in Albuquerque, attended the Grace Carroll School for the second year in a row. He’s now vice president of his union, Bakery Workers Local 351. “Without going to the school,” he said, “I might have lost my fire and backed off.

“A lot of our members, all they know about the union is in the shop,” he said, “which is all I knew, too. But then you go to these schools and you learn about the bigger picture.”

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How to Attend

The Grace Carroll Rocky Mountain Labor School takes place every summer. Next year it will be held in New Mexico. It’s open to members of AFL-CIO affiliates from the eight Mountain States. Visit gcrmls.org or contact your state fed.

The United Association of Labor Educators organizes annual summer schools for women workers in four regions: Northeast, Midwest, West, and South. Like the Grace Carroll School, the programs last four or five days and are held on university campuses, rotating among host states in each region. Visit uale.org/womens-schools for details.

“The school operates on the assumption that you learn two ways,” Brauer said. “One is in the classes, and the other is in the interchange at meals, at the picnic, and just knocking around in the dorms. People learn by talking to each other.”

That’s the best part, according to Gutierrez. His first time at the school, “I traded ideas with all sorts of people,” he said. One was to launch a communications committee, focused on getting the local in closer touch with its members.

He also took inspiration from the ways other unions were using tools like Facebook and T-shirts to build a spirit of solidarity on the job. “When we made stickers, tons of members put them on their bump hats and on their lockers,” Gutierrez said. “That boosts morale.”

State labor federations promote the school. So do local unions. Many participants come from small locals outside metropolitan areas, where union officers aren’t full-time.

Instructors, recruited by word of mouth, include experienced organizers and lawyers. All are volunteers; the school pays only their expenses. Besides teaching classes, they make themselves available to answer questions one on one.

Many students come back for more, so in the early 2000s, the school added a second-year curriculum. Its board is debating adding a third year.

Sessions take place on university campuses, creating a cloistered feeling that draws students closer. “You can’t just take a one-day seminar and get to know people on the same level as you do over a week of working, learning, and living together,” said another returning participant, Secretary-Treasurer Chauffe Schirmer of Utility Workers Local 127.

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In her day job, Schirmer monitors and operates pumps and pulverizers at a coal-fired power plant in Glenrock, Wyoming. The school has given her “the opportunity to learn anything and everything about the labor movement and how to make our union run better,” she said, “everything from networking and seeing the structures of other unions to grievance handling and organizing.”

PRACTICAL IMPACT

Another returnee from Local 127 was Vice President Chad Smith, a maintenance electrician at a power plant in Rock Springs, Wyoming.

He’s working on developing a training to help the local’s stewards win more grievances. “If they’re going to be beating their head against the wall all the time,” Smith said, “they’re less likely to stay with it.”

So he was especially enthused about the steward training class, with its real-world scenarios.

Instructor John Faunce “will walk us through the steps,” Smith said. “He’ll have a couple of people from the class simulate a meeting with a company manager, go through the investigation, write out the grievance—all of that is priceless for new stewards.”

Faunce, past president of Local 127, became the school’s coordinator after the 2003 death of coordinator Grace Carroll, for whom the school is named.

He first attended in 1977, when it was more of a retreat for officers. Over the years, he said, “our school took a different path and started doing training for rank and file as well.”

That focus has increased the school’s practical impact. “It’s not uncommon for me to get a call during the year saying, 'Hey, I just put into practice the stuff you taught me,’” Faunce said.

FAST FRIENDS

Brandon Barnea works at a paper mill in Lewiston, Idaho. A steward with Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 73, he found the classes covering grievances, arbitration, and collective bargaining especially useful.

His employer, Clearwater Paper, has the attitude of “I don’t need to know your name, you don’t need to know mine,” Barnea said. “A lot of the older H.R. people are fired and gone, and they’ve been replaced with younger, more ruthless people.”

For instance, “they’ve drug out the grievance procedure past the due dates. It’ll take us normally eight, nine, 10 months to get a grievance settled.” In next year’s negotiations, he fears the company is planning to come after workers’ health care.

Local 127 members said their employers, too, are dragging out the grievance process and demanding givebacks. But thanks to the school, they’ve all picked up tips on how to fight—and even more important, a sense that they’re not alone.

That’s one of the main goals, Faunce said: “to bring different unions together so that they all understand they’re in the same boat. The issues are the same—but until we get together, we don’t realize that.”

“The biggest thing I got out of it was the solidarity,” said Gutierrez. “You come out here and you meet these people for the first time, and you’re immediately friends.

“You don’t know anything about them except that they’re in a union. Everyone’s brother, everyone’s sister. I’ve never experienced that on such a large scale—that immediate friendship, that immediate brotherhood.”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 450, September 2016. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.