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August 2013

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Bonding Generations in Iowa

Mike Olson, a 17-year inside journeyman wireman, is trying to work himself out of a job.

Unswerving — even a little obsessed — Olson, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Local 405 registrar and longtime political activist, hunts down future leaders of his local with all of the fierceness of a high-priced headhunter looking for a new CEO. And he is succeeding.

Six years ago, Olson met Jeff Cooling on one of his missions. The 18-year-old had just started his apprenticeship. Cooling, Olson figured, just might be one of those young workers who gets involved in his local union and stays involved. After all, his mother was an electrician and his father a millwright at the historic Quaker Mills plant. And Cooling told Olson he knew that nearly everything he had derived from his parents' good union jobs. But Olson wasn't taking any chances.

Olson, 62, and a few years away from retirement, made his pitch early, says Cooling. "Mike told me, 'You are 18. You're going to be here 30 to 40 years and if you don't help to see that things go in the right direction, you won't [succeed like your parents].'"

A local political campaign was coming up and Olson encouraged Cooling to canvas union households with another young journeyman, Andriy Lapitskyy, going door-to-door to support the union-endorsed candidate.

Today, Cooling and Lapitskyy are both Local 405 registrars, registering members to vote and providing fellow members information on how each election will affect their families. Olson says they are playing an important role in keeping up the local union's impressive 96 percent registration and 90 percent voting rates in national elections.

With Olson's encouragement, his fellow registrars helped found a group of young worker activists, the Nuhawks, sponsored by the AFL-CIO's Hawkeye Central Labor Council, which covers seven Iowa counties.

"My generation really needs to step it up," says Cooling, praising Olson's push to train new leaders. "We have so many distractions at our fingertips, but we need to keep our eyes on what is important and use technology for information, not just games."

Lapitskyy, a second-year apprentice whose parents migrated from the Ukraine when he was 10, told Olson he wanted to help campaign for Barack Obama in 2008. "Mike constantly called me back to keep me informed. He's a person I respect," he says.

"When I was Jeff and Andriy's age, I thought anything was possible," says Olson, a follower of legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky, who received a B.A. in political science before joining Local 405. Cooling and Lapitskyy are more practical, but still "well-versed for their age on the political climate in the country," says Olson, whose grandmother was president of her local union at a cabinet-making shop and once addressed the U.S. Congress on issues relating to working families.

As Local 405 has experienced an influx of new members, Olson says he realized he had to do a better job making his case on the job and at local meetings about the need for members to engage in politics and community service. He sees progress on two fronts from his efforts and the support he receives from Business Manager Bill Hanes.

"I'm hearing side conversations about politics on the job between younger members," Olson said. That is a sign of progress because many of them, he says, were products of an educational system that "leaves young people clueless" about unions and their political role.

Cooling and Lapitskyy, who have attended national meetings of AFL-CIO and IBEW young activists, are making their own pitch — in their own way — to their peers on the need to help reinvigorate and energize their local unions. The Nuhawks meet on Sundays at a bar. "We keep it real informal. Formal meetings can be intimidating. And we involve our spouses," says Cooling.

Last year, only a month after he turned out of his apprenticeship, Cooling was chosen to serve as a steward on a project revamping Cedar Rapids' convention center. Sharpening his leadership and consensus-building skills, Cooling worked with his contractor and members to see that overtime was equitably distributed. "The job went smoothly."

Lapitskyy has heard young workers in other locals complain about leaders who don't encourage their participation. "Maybe it's harder in a large local union," he says. "But I can go up and talk to Bill Hanes any day of the week and he listens to what I have to say." Cooling, who is currently out of work and volunteering his time on labor-community projects like the Letter Carriers' "Stamp out Hunger" campaign, says, "We're lucky to be encouraged to stand up and get active."

Organized labor is in a precarious position with corporate America "having had its way far too long," says Olson. "The labor movement desperately needs more young leaders like Jeff and Andriy, who will need to take some risks that some more senior leaders are not willing to take."


Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Local 405 registrar and longtime political activist Mike Olson, center, has been mentoring and working with young local leaders Jeff Cooling, left, and Andriy Lapitskyy to bolster the movement.