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Black History Month Member Spotlight: Mike Dillard

For this week’s member spotlight, we chatted with Local 75 member and steward Mike Dillard. Mike has worked at Kroger stores in Cincinnati, Ohio and in nearby Kentucky for 25 years now, and has seen how being a union member truly makes a difference in the workplace. Today, he is an assistant meat manager.

In honor of Black History Month, he also shared with us some stories of his his grandfather and father, who lived during the height of the civil rights movement.

Local 75 member and steward Mike Dillard

Local 75 member and steward Mike Dillard

His father, a retired one star general and doctor, was the second black general in Ohio, and was a participant in several marches for equality in the 60′s. His grandfather, Mike tells us, was a doctor during World War I. However, when Mike’s grandfather Charles served during the war in the army, they refused to recognize his M.D., and made him scrub latrines instead. Although Mike remembers this story of his grandfather’s with sadness, he notes that he went on to later found a radiology center at the University of Michigan, with pride.

Mike also shares that he recently discovered that he and his family are direct descendants of a unit in the Civil War called the Black Brigade. Mike explains that during the Civil War, many African Americans living in Kentucky moved slightly further north into Ohio because it was less hostile towards them, and to escape the Confederacy which had moved up into Kentucky. When the confederates were on the verge of attacking the Cincinnati area, Union troops began taking black men against their will and put them to work to fortify the city and build trenches. But upon hearing this, one of the Union generals was outraged that these men had been forced to work, and demanded their release and an apology. Once the group of African American men returned to their homes, they were then asked if they would be willing to volunteer their time helping build defenses and fortifications for the city. Despite the previous gross violation of their human rights–being made to work against their will–nearly 1,000 African American men from the area agreed to help the Union troops. This group of men was dubbed the Black brigade, and became the first of many such groups to form throughout the country–building bridges and trenches, hauling cannons, and assisting the cause in many other ways. Mike notes that thanks to the help of this Black Brigade, the Confederacy was effectively kept out of Ohio and they saw no bloodshed.  There is even a memorial statue in a nearby park that commemorates the group, Mike says.

Unfortunately, Mike has experienced some conflict in his own experiences too, having dealt with a verbally and at one point physically abusive manager for a time. Thankfully, being a union member meant that Mike had the support he needed to get out of the situation. Mike says he tries to use what he has learned as a union worker, as well as his family’s rich history dealing with fighting for civil rights, to help his fellow union members.

“I’m a nice guy and I try to keep an open mind and good rapport with managers and my fellow associates,” say Mike. When Mike tells us that it is “better to get more bees with honey than it is with vinegar”, we are reminded of the teachings and actions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, both Civil Rights leaders who valued peaceful protest rather than violence.

As Mike reflects, he notes that the fight for equal civil rights and the fight for equal workers rights often have the same goal. When telling someone about the union at work, Mike explains that “you have a stronger voice with more people, just like with civil rights, you know if you have one person yellin’, you’re not going to be heard as much as 10,000 people yelling” for the same cause. “With both the union and with the civil rights movement, you have solidarity. It’s about being fair, and everyone having the rights that they should have.”

Do you have a story to share about being a union member, or about participating in the civil rights movement? Let us know here!

 

Member Spotlight: Mechelle Cunningham

In this week’s member spotlight, we’re highlighting the story of another longtime UFCW member, who like last week’s spotlight member, is also from West Virginia.

Local 23 member Mechelle Cunningham caught our attention when we saw how she spearheaded a collection drive at her workplace–Giant Eagle in Morgantown, West Virginia. After hearing about a friend who had donated some water and that trucks were bringing water to people in her state who were affected by the chemical spill in and around Charleston, WV, Mechelle looked at the 3 pallets of water on the store floor in front of her and told her manager she wanted to purchase them and have them removed from the store floor. Her manager, knowing the cost was around $560 dollars, said, “Today?” Mechelle’s response was automatic.

Local 23 members Robin Gable, Teresa Policicchio, Mechelle Cunningham, and Anna Sisler.

Local 23 members Robin Gable, Teresa Policicchio, Mechelle Cunningham, and Anna Sisler.

“I didn’t think about the price–I just knew that my fellow employees would gather together to purchase that water to send down there. I told her that one way or another we’d get the money, and we did!” Together, Mechelle, her fellow union members, and other members of the community were able to send 17 pallets of water to those in need.

For Mechelle, being a union member means “standing up for your rights, and helping one another”. When talking with Mechelle, its clear that the ‘helping one another’ part is big for her, as demonstrated by her role in the donation of the water pallets: “We all really help one another and donate for different causes and support each other, and especially with something that large for our community, you know, people not having water–that’s a main thing, you have to have that.”

Mechelle is coming up on her 40th year as a UFCW member and has experienced first-hand how being in a union means there’s always someone there to help–”to back you and support you”.  Mechelle finds that oftentimes, many people don’t know about the union, and until they sit down and talk about it, don’t fully understand what it is. “I just have such a strong belief in the union,” says Mechelle, which is why she helps spread the word at work about how people–often younger members who haven’t been through strikes for better working conditions like she has–can protect their rights. By sharing her own experiences as a union member, and how it has helped her, she finds that she is helping them understand, even when there isn’t something currently happening.

Active community members like Mechelle inspire us every day. Do you know a UFCW member whose story we could share? Tell us about them at http://www.ufcw.org/resources/members/share-your-story/

 

Member Spotlight: Gary Southall

Union Strong. What’s behind that saying? Easy–union members.

What makes a union strong, are the members: workers who stand together, are involved in their workplace and communities, and work to better the lives of all working people. This week we would like to shine a light on one of those members.

Gary Southall has worked at Kroger–as a head deli clerk, a head checker, a head frozen food clerk, and now as a cashier–in Jackson County West Virginia for 41 years. He has been a UFCW member for just as long. Coming from a union family, it seems to be in his blood: “My dad, my grampa, all the uncles–everybody union members for as long as I can remember.”

When he began working at Kroger at the age of 16, the union was already in place, however, Gary eventually got more involved with his union, and has become a true member activist over the years. Not only is Gary a Local 400 steward, but is an avid supporter of programs in his community that benefit working people and better living conditions for young people.

Local 400 member and steward Gary Southall

Local 400 member and steward Gary Southall

One such program is the Jackson County Anti-Drug Coalition, which works to reduce underage alcohol abuse and substance use among youth. He has helped garner $1500 in donations for the coalition, $500 of which is from UFCW Local 400. Gary is also a member of the Central Labor Council, and an officer with the AFL-CIO, and as part of the AFL’s national initiative, he strives to be very involved in his community, even if it doesn’t involve union members. “We just take care of each other,” Gary says of the work he does.

Gary also lobbies for the UFCW, and this week helped re-introduce a bill that will prevent the sale of alcohol through self-checkout machines. The bill’s intent is to curb the ease with which already intoxicated or underage consumers can purchase alcohol.

When talking to Gary, its clear that he really cares for the youth in his community, and wants them to have as much opportunity in life as possible. Gary, working with the West Virginia AFL-CIO, has helped promote an educational video called Labor in the Mountains, which tells the story of labor’s history in West Virginia and the coal-industry, as told by a grandfather who lived through much of it, as he answers his granddaughter’s questions. Seeing the importance of teaching students about Labor’s influence on the middle class, the group worked hard to ensure that, effective this year, the video will now be shown in all middle school and high school civics classes in Jackson County, and they are working to spread this to the curriculum of other counties as well. Similarly, Gary is also working with others to promote an award-winning book called Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type in which some literate cows leave notes for their farmer, demanding better working conditions and eventually going on strike. They are hoping to  get a copy of the book into all third grade classes in the county, as well as community libraries.

On top of helping to promote labor education for kids, Gary is also involved with a program called Reconnecting McDowell, which works to help kids living in poverty in this neighboring Appalachain county, by improving education, providing food, and helping kids find safe spaces, among many other things.

Now in his fourth year at the Leadership Academy, hosted by the AFL-CIO and the West Virginia University institute of labor studies and researches, Gary has emerged as a true leader, helping others to see why unions are so important.

Gary has been through two strikes at Kroger, earlier on in his career. It was during those times when he saw how important the union difference was: “At that time I was working part-time, and  I wasn’t making very much money–but when I went back to work after the strike, I was making double that money, which was fantastic for a young guy still in school.”

“But the point [of the union] in general, for me and for everybody, if they know it, is that you have a voice–you’re not out there by yourself, and you have someone to help you if you need help. You know your union steward–I’m a union steward and I have been for 15 or 20 years. No one can come out here and single you out, or say ‘If I don’t like ya, we’ll fire ya’ or that kind of thing.” He says that the union creates better work practices, and prevents unsafe working conditions: “you’ve got someone to say, ‘you know you can’t do that’ and if someone says ‘you need to do this or we’ll fire you’ well, no, we aren’t gonna do it if it’s not safe.”

“We’ve got welfare benefits, like pretty good insurance and I’ve got six weeks of vacation now. Industry-wide, at least my area here in West Virginia, no one else in the grocery business makes the kind of money that we make.”

But one story Gary likes to tell, to show what solidarity can do, doesn’t have anything to do with wages or benefits. “It may sound kind of silly but, I have a son who will be 36 in April. When he was 6 weeks old, Kroger came in one day, and some of us fellas had started growing beards–and I don’t remember what the reason was, but we had decided to grow beards. Anyway they came in and they told us we couldn’t grow a beard on company time, that if we wanted to grow one, we had to grow it on our own time, and shave it off for company time.” Gary says that this mandate didn’t sit too well them. “Of the people still there, and there are four in my workplace that were there when this happened–we still have that beard that we couldn’t grow 35 years ago. That was the last day I was clean-shaven, and I haven’t shaved from that day on, 35 years ago.” Gary and his coworkers stood together, in doing something as simple as not shaving off their beards, and Kroger backed off. Recently, one of Gary’s close friends and co-workers was asked to shave. His response was, “I’ll tell you what–the day that Gary Southall shaves, I’ll do it too.”

Gary is a true example of what unions can do when members are active and involved, and how they benefit the people in their communities. Stories like his inspire us to stay strong and continue sticking together in solidarity for the middle class, and all working people!

 

If you know a UFCW member who inspires you, or has a story worth telling, please contact Mia Perry at mperry@ufcw.org