By Don Morrison
(Gary Granzotto of Minot was elected President of the North Dakota AFLCIO at the state labor federation’s fall convention in Grand Forks. He succeeded Dave Kemnitz of Mandan who served as president for the past 28years. The Prairie Independent’s Don Morrison recently talked with Granzotto about the importance of what he does.)
DON MORRISON: How did you get involved in the labor movement?
GARY GRANZOTTO (GG): I see how my Christian upbringing and my theological training quite naturally led to me becoming a union activist. As a young man I was confronted with our country’s military action in Indochina. I was compelled to study the history of our involvement and to ask some rather fundamental questions. What is the Christian position on war? What is the Christian citizen’s response to a government engaged in an immoral war? What is the Christian’s relationship to those in positions of power and authority?
In the search to find answers to these questions I was greatly influenced by a German Lutheran pastor and writer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His writings and his example have had a profound influence on me. He was executed by the Nazis for his involvement in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Here are some of the lessons our military action in Indochina taught me. People in positions of power/authority do not always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. People in positions of power/authority are not always benevolent rulers who possess the wisdom of Solomon. People in positions of power/authority are capable of making mistakes which lead to oppression, injustice and even atrocities. No one in a position of power authority should be blindly followed or unquestioningly obeyed. A Christian has a moral responsibility to address matters of oppression and injustice.
After over 8 years of conflict resolution ministry I became disillusioned with what I was experiencing in the church. Christians were fighting with Christians. What was intended to be the healing community was, in reality, the wounding community. I made a career change. I had worked as a custodian in high school and through my college days. I became a custodian for Minot Public Schools and joined the union that represented some of the support staff in the school system. I have been a union activist ever since.
DM: What is the importance of labor unions to working families?
GG: We should first do a refresher course on past accomplishments of unions.
Because of unions workers commonly have weekends, the 8 hour workday, overtime pay for over forty hours a week, a minimum wage, paid vacation, paid holidays, unemployment insurance, pensions, health insurance, workplace safety standards, and worker ‘s compensation when a worker is injured or killed on the job. We also have child labor laws.
These things were not always realities in this country. They did not fall from the sky nor were they Christmas gifts from the people in positions of power and authority. They are the result of struggles and unions were in the middle of those struggles.
We should wake up to the reality that there is today a serious effort to dismantle many of these accomplishments. Much of labor’s struggle today is to keep these past accomplishments. We also need to think about the ongoing and never ending struggle to improve workplaces and make them healthier. I have not met a worker who has never had a workplace issue. I have not met a worker who does not have some idea about how to make her/his workplace better. Most workers have experienced a difficult boss who you suspect has taken classes from the Plantation Owners’ School of Management. Unions provide workers a collective voice in the workplace and the opportunity to work together to make the workplace healthier.
DM: What do you want people to know about the lockout of workers by American Crystal Sugar in the Red River Valley?
GG: People need to know this is not a strike. This is a lockout. In a strike the workers decide not to work. In a lockout the employer prohibits the workers from working and brings in other workers to replace them.
From the very beginning the workers have expressed their willingness to work under the current contract until a new contract was negotiated. American Crystal Sugar made a final offer and when that was voted down by the workers, Crystal Sugar locked out the workers and brought in replacements.
The lockout of 1,300 workers began on August 1, 2011.
About 420 of the locked out workers are not eligible for unemployment benefits from the state of North Dakota because the North Dakota law says that anyone in a “labor dispute” is not eligible for unemployment. The locked out workers in Minnesota and Iowa collect unemployment benefits.
The BCTGM workers have expressed their desire to resume negotiations.
We are seeing an increase of the use of the lockout in this country.
DM: You have encouraged members of faith communities to become involved in the lockout. Would you expand on this idea?
GG: There are many places where organized labor and faith communities have formed coalitions to advance social justice. Sadly, this kind of coalition has been neglected in North Dakota. I know there are great possibilities here. A number of prayer vigils to end the lockout have occurred in the Red River Valley. I am hoping to have discussions with members of faith communities to discuss our common issues and the possibility of working together in the future.
More about Gary Granzotto:
Gary Granzotto grew up in Michigan, attending a Lutheran elementary school in Detroit and public high school in Grosse Pointe. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Concordia College in Ann Arbor, Michigan and his Masters of Divinity from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.
He was a pastor in conflict resolution ministry for over 8 years in congregations in Nevada, Nebraska, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Dakota. He was a custodian in the Minot Public Schools for over 16 years and was elected president of the North Dakota AFL-CIO in October 2011.
His union offices include several offices for the local Minot chapter of NDPEA/AFT and a member of the NDPEA Board of Directors. He’s currently serving on the Unity Team working toward merger of NDEA and NDPEA.
He and his wife Clarice (Linnertz) have their home in Minot. His daughter and grandson live in Michigan and he has a stepson in Seattle and two stepsons in Minot.
In 2008, Granzotto was a candidate for the North Dakota Senate on the Democratic-NPL ticket. He reads constantly and enjoys organic gardening and Italian cuisine. He says, “I used to have time to fish and chase pheasants.”
The North Dakota AFL-CIO is the state federation of labor representing members of 90 unions throughout the state. Its mission is to improve the lives of working families – to bring economic justice to the workplace and social justice to our state and the nation. For more information see www.ndaflcio.org.