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The Future of Labor Is Growing in South Dakota

Kooper Caraway, the head of the state’s AFL-CIO, is done with thinking small.

Tina Gonzalez/AFL-CIO

Kooper Caraway, the newly elected president of the South Dakota AFL-CIO, sees his stated duty to improve the lot of the American working class as more of a calling. Born in Alabama and raised in Texas, the 29-year-old son of a German-American truck driver and a Native American retail worker became aware of the inequities of social class at an early age. Caraway knows all too well what it’s like to suffer for lack of basic resources, let alone luxuries. He’s “been to jail a lot,” he notes, thanks to his years of political activism. When he was still a boy and his family’s water got cut off, he’d be forced to sneak over to a neighbor’s yard to surreptitiously fill up empty milk jugs so he could shower in the morning before school. Now he is the country’s youngest state federation president within the AFL-CIO, and he aims to shake up the nation’s creaking labor bureaucracy in a big way.

His first foray into political action came in the second grade, when he organized a plot to steal the keys to the city and take control of its armory in order to seize power from the adults that he felt were causing all the world’s problems. Despite such early militant impulses, little Kooper felt his life’s mission was to become a preacher. His family wasn’t especially religious, he recalls, but he carried his Bible around with him, taking at least one of its messages to heart—the one involving rich men and needles. “As far as I could tell, what the book was saying, or at least what Jesus Christ was saying, was that all people—thieves, murderers, sex workers—could achieve salvation, except rich folks,” he says. “Rich folks are not getting in. And looking around as a kid, it seemed pretty clear to me that all the struggles that me or my family or my neighbors or my friends or anyone else in the community were going through were directly tied to rich folks.”

This youthful fascination with religion was politically charged, but his coming-of-age in the activist world occurred a little later. Like many millennials, he was galvanized by the abuses of power that marked the George W. Bush years and particularly by the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. While I was rallying against Dick Cheney back in South Jersey, Caraway was organizing protests and actions to chase Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of his small Texas town, where they’d begun raiding his neighbors’ homes. After the feds cleared out, Caraway threw himself into community organizing, with a focus on police brutality and an appreciation for the organizing power of labor. “By the time I was a teenager, it was just clear to me that the labor movement, with its blemishes and imperfections and historical grave wrong decisions, was the movement that had the potential to provide the earth-shattering change that I wanted and felt like I needed.”

A quick breakdown of the next few years of his career reads like something out of a socialist fairy tale. He left sleepy Northeast Texas for bustling Dallas, where he worked on building community partnerships with Jobs for Justice; after that, he was a labor organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and worked as a union representative for the American Federation of Teachers. In 2017, he moved up north to South Dakota to work as the lead organizer for Council 65 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (where he’s still a member). In short order, he rose through the ranks to become the president of the Sioux-Falls AFL-CIO, making history as the youngest central labor council president in the country. Now, at 29, he’s done it again with his election to state-level office.

He began campaigning in October last year, traveling around the state to speak at local membership meetings. He also began collecting endorsements from area labor leaders and produced a slick campaign video with Means TV that aired in the lead-up to the state federation convention that would vote him in. But, as he says, those plans quickly changed after his predecessor, Duwayne Wohlle­ber, was found to be posting racist, right-wing memes and commentary on his personal Facebook page. Following pressure from the national AFL-CIO leadership, Wohlle­ber decided to resign, leaving the office of president vacant for several months and clearing the path for Caraway, who ultimately ran unopposed.

The circumstances around his election feel almost as significant as the appointment itself, and make for another organizing fable of sorts: the swift departure of the old, white (and bigoted, as it turned out) reactionary, along with the elevation of a much younger person of color who wears his inclusive politics on his sleeve. The challenge he’ll embrace in his new post will be to keep the momentum for change, in both South Dakota and the American labor movement at large. In a state that’s 85 percent white, and with just 7 percent of the workforce unionized, Caraway has a huge opportunity to fight for those on the margins. He’s one of the most unabashedly radical leaders in the country, and he’s strolling into the spotlight at a time when the future of labor is very much up for grabs.

He still gets overwhelmed sometimes thinking about how far he’s come, a feeling that pops up when people refer to him as “Mr. President,” or at moments like the time, recently, when he was picking out decorations for his brand-new office. “I commissioned this really dope artist to paint a portrait of [assassinated Black Panther leader] Fred Hampton, and as we were discussing which image we should use for the portrait, I realized that I had forgotten that I spent a summer touring with Fred Hampton Jr. as his security!” he exclaims. Back when he was still living in Texas, Caraway had been involved in a loose coalition of Black and brown-led leftist community defense groups, and when Hampton Jr. came knocking with a request, he answered. “I spent a summer trying to make sure no one assassinated [Fred Hampton’s] son, so coming from my background, and being here, there’s a lot of those ‘Oh, shit!’ moments.”

Caraway may be the youngest new state labor leader, but he’s part of a broader general shift taking shape in the house of labor. In 2017, then-36-year-old Josette Jaramillo was elected president of the Colorado AFL-CIO, while she was pulling triple duty as the president of AFSCME Council 76 and as a full-time senior caseworker in her hometown of Pueblo, in Colorado’s department of child welfare.

“It seems so crazy to me that I’m the first woman of color and LGBTQ+ person to hold this office,” she tells me over email. “It’s really shaped the way our entire state federation has looked at inclusion and diversity. So we built a longer table, started reaching out to folks who didn’t have a seat at our table before, and really intentionally recruited leaders who hadn’t been recruited before. In Colorado, we have really been able to build an executive board that looks like our membership, and our membership is made up of every kind of human you can imagine.”

Jaramillo’s service to the labor movement began 15 years ago, when she got her first union job. Like Caraway, she had a working-class upbringing with union members in the family. Jaramillo says that the opportunities she’s been given in labor stem from her own “hunger” to become a good union leader and from the support of mentors like former AFSCME Western Regional Director Flora Walker. Now Jaramillo is paying it forward, working to ensure that diversity and inclusion remain at the forefront of her office’s mission as she anticipates greeting the next generation of labor leaders.

“Making an intentional effort to include voices from all across our members is the way that we continue to make sure the young folks and people of color are the norm,” she says.

At the best of times, the AFL-CIO, like many sprawling national institutions, finds itself juggling an often conflicting array of priorities, issues, and criticisms—all while trying to placate its 55 million very different members. And these, needless to say, are far from the best of times, with the United States staring down the barrel of yet another presidential election pitting a querulous neoliberal Democratic establishment against the specter of full-blown fascism. The federation has been working overtime to marshal the union vote in favor of Joe Biden, who loves to tout himself as a “union man,” despite having never actually joined one. But the associations representing cops and border guards broke with the rest of the labor movement and endorsed Trump—an unsurprising move that further highlighted a problem that the AFL-CIO has been trying very hard to ignore for a very long time: its relationship with the police.

Since late May, when the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked a nationwide uprising against police violence, many powerful institutions have been forced to reevaluate their relationships with law enforcement. The house of labor is no different, and during this summer of protest, the AFL-CIO released multiple statements reaffirming its commitment to racial justice and advocating for police reform. For many in the movement, though, this wasn’t enough: A number of rank-and-file groups within the federation have started to call for the AFL-CIO to officially disaffiliate the International Union of Police Associations and for other member unions to expel the cops within their own ranks. This tension tracks the broader generational and political divide between labor’s traditionally Democrat-aligned leaders and the younger, more left-leaning and diverse segments of its membership. In Caraway’s view, that conversation isn’t going away, nor should it; but he also says that it’s run aground on the sacrosanct question of the police union’s collective bargaining rights.

The challenge, he argues, is to be clear about which unions are really advancing the labor movement’s shared goals. “To me it makes sense to say, which unions should be held to the same standard of solidarity, and which union should be exempt from that standard of solidarity? Which unions should be required by the federation to not cross each other’s’ picket lines and in fact to support each other’s job actions, and which unions should be allowed to not only cross the picket lines but to break up the picket lines and arrest the organizers? Which unions in the federation should be held to the standard to get down with the AFL-CIO’s national political program, and support the labor-endorsed candidates, and which unions should be exempt from that and be able to go endorse whatever anti-union politicians they’d like to, and then stand outside of polling places with guns?”

So where does a leader like Caraway fit in now? It’s complicated. He seems like the kind of union man who’d feel more comfortable at Blair Mountain than on Capitol Hill. As an ambitious socialist of color with big dreams for the future, he’s the poster child for labor’s rising young vanguard and has a close comradely relationship with AFA-CWA’s visionary leader, Sara Nelson—but he also counts more traditional figures, such as AFL-CIO’s President Richard Trumka, Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, and Executive Vice President Tenebre Gerbere as some of his closest mentors.

“It’s really interesting to think that a lot of the folks in charge now in leadership positions across the country were at one time the young radicals: Richard Trumka was always seen as a radical firebrand, he was elected international president of the Mineworkers at 33,” Caraway explains. “It makes sense that the generations that come after are a little more radical, a little more progressive, and get started at a little bit of a younger age. I hope that the generations that come after me are 10 degrees further to my left; I don’t know if there are 10 degrees to my left, but if there are, then I hope that they are there!”

Kooper says he’s also learned how to square his own political goals with those of the wider community around him. Unlike many on the left, he tries to avoid sectarian squabbling, steadfastly advocating for his own positions and ideas while trusting that the membership will keep him and other movement leaders honest. Caraway isn’t about to be steamrolled, even if he is regarded as “the whippersnapper” by some of his new colleagues. “The people will determine what’s the right position,” he explains. “If it’s me and a very conservative union leader actually engaging in debate, and people are listening, then there’s value in that. But me saying, ‘Fuck you, you’re a sellout business unionist,’ it might make me feel better, but the people outside of the labor temples and union halls aren’t necessarily benefiting from that. What they benefit from is me taking the position I have—that they should have all the power—and putting that position into practical programs that they and their families can benefit from. They don’t benefit from us jerking each other off.”

As Caraway prepares to take the reins in South Dakota, he’ll be putting his leadership skills to the test as never before. His vision for a broadly inclusive coalition stems in no small part from Caraway’s own belief in Black Panther–style self-determination, which he’s always felt could (and should) translate over to the labor movement. “We have massive union halls, we have resources, we have members, we have income that is not reliant on the government or anything else—it’s from everyone pitching in a little from their paycheck,” he explains. “So there’s no reason we can’t feed kids, build our own housing, build our own health clinics. There’s no reason why we can’t have working-class ownership over a lot of institutions the way the Panthers were trying to do.… We can govern ourselves better than we can be governed by our bosses.”

“I’ve been pushing for building union-owned housing cooperatives and investing in working-class and labor culture; working-class-oriented art, artists, poets, musicians,” he continues. “And having the state federation be actively involved in organizing, from supporting the efforts of locals to actively recruiting and training salters to go in and organize unorganized workplaces. Basically, my platform was around building something more broad and encompassing, and taking the state federation from being a lobbying organization to it being the legitimate voice and representative of the working class as a whole.”

The future that Caraway wants sounds more like what you’d encounter in a well-funded European social democratic enclave than in the brutal kakistocractic hellscape of America in the Trump years. But he’s determined to try anyway, and given his track record so far, the odds are in his favor. “The only criticism throughout the campaign has been, do you think you can actually do that? And I would just say, yeah, I think we can!” he tells me. “When the majority of the criticism is, ‘Well, that’s really ambitious, do you think you can really do it?’ then you’re in good shape, because it means inherently they already agree that that’s a good direction. They might be skeptical if we can achieve it, but if you already agree, then we’re halfway there.”

“The reason that I end almost all my speeches with, ‘All power to the working class!’ is because I believe that shit,” he explains, channeling that lifelong passion as an activist and organizer. “And I believe there’s no way of moving forward without bringing that power, every little fucking drop, to the working class. And then, once it has that power, then we can build whatever we want to build.”