Labor and united Way: Connected in community

Published on August 16, 2023 in

The partnership between United Way and labor extends back to the 1940s, when United Way still went by Community Chest. During the difficult economic times after World War II ended, this predecessor of United Way fundraised every year for many groups.

Organized labor helped, encouraging union members to support the Community Chest. Before long, United Way and labor began to collaborate on workplace fundraising campaigns and payroll deductions.

The rich legacy of United Way and labor coming together on behalf of families in need was recently celebrated with a labor partnership mixer in downtown Detroit.

“For more than 80 years, we and our labor partners have been united in our shared values and commitment to uplifting working families so that everyone in our community can prosper,” said Dr. Darienne Hudson, president and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

Attendees included U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor; Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield and Oakland County Board of Commissioners Chairman Dave Woodward.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey also attended the mixer and served as keynote speaker.

Under the summer sun, Booker brought the crowd to its feet multiple times while sharing stories about his own personal ties to labor and his journey to become a Unites States senator.

Below, we outline a few meaningful lessons from Booker and others at the event. These words provide a call to action for all of us.

Power in Partnership

Labor’s impact on United Way’s mission cannot be overstated. Union members fund some of our region’s most critical needs – accounting for 40 percent of the dollars coming to United Way.

And union members don’t just show up to support the community through donations. They show up in real life — often supplying people power needed for volunteer projects.

“United Way recognizes that this partnership is imperative, and that labor and unions are essential to the work of our community,” said Alicia Dennis, interim director for Labor Participation at United Way for Southeastern Michigan “Through our partnership, we can help so many more people. Like the saying goes – many hands make light work.”

Since October 2022, more than 400 union members have logged more than 8,300 volunteer hours for 18 projects, including food distribution and reading to youth.

One of those union members is Felicia Wiseman. As an electrician, instructor, and mentor, Felicia is a powerful force at IBEW Local 58. She is passionate about promoting contracting and skilled trades to women and a new generation of workers.

In June 2023, Felicia attended the Southeastern Michigan Union Community Activist Network (UCAN) Conference, which was co-presented by United Way and Metro-Detroit AFL-CIO.

During the mixer, Felicia was honored with the 2023 Jim Pita UCAN Award. She shared gratitude for the opportunities created by the partnership between United Way and labor.

“Thank you for opening up avenues for me to do what I love — helping people,” Felicia said.

Remember Your Roots

Surrounded by labor union leaders, Booker said he was reminded of his grandfather.

“I came from a poor kid struggling in Louisiana, whose north star was Detroit,” he said.

Booker spoke of his grandfather finding a family with the UAW in Detroit, eventually thriving and sending his daughter to college. His grandfather credited his strong union’s advocacy for allowing him to build a life where he could afford such ventures.

“My grandfather said he was proud to engage in civic activity,” Booker said. “Now, the United Way is about that. This partnership to me, takes me back home to where I came from. Union organizers, the United Way, standing up together to serve other people because that’s what this nation needs right now.”

“So here we are, a small group of Americans, inheritors of a rich legacy that goes back to the days of my grandfather and before. That in this sacred soil, a place called Detroit, people never stop believing in the dream of America, but they know that great dreams take work and sacrifice.”

Robert Gonzalez, chair of United Way’s labor subcommittee and business manager of IUPAT District Council 1M, echoed Booker’s praise for the connection between United Way and unions.

“…[Partnering] connects our labor family with things United Way does to help out folks that have turbulent times going on,” Robert said.

United We Rise

As feel-good music filled the air and attendees enjoyed food and fellowship, it became obvious that this was more than a meeting – it was family coming together in the name of community – just as they’ve done for more than 80 years.

Labor leaders and members joined United Way team members to celebrate past successes and explore upcoming opportunities to help those in need.

“This is what community looks like,” said Andre Ebron, senior director, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the United Way.

Dave Woodward reflected on the region’s most pressing issues with a sense of optimism for the future. “As a region, we have big challenges that no individual, single entity, or one government can solve,” Dave said. “It requires all of us to work together.”

Witnessing the atmosphere of solidarity, Dave added, “For the first time in my life, we are all aligned to do whatever we can to give unprecedented prosperity to future generations.”

Paul Van Oss, business manager at IBEW Local 58, said it simply, “When we work together, we win.”

Daryl Newman, president of Metro-Detroit AFL-CIO and United Way board member, also attended to support the cause.

Booker shared one last insight before the night ended:

“So here we are, a small group of Americans, inheritors of a rich legacy that goes back to the days of my grandfather and before. That in this sacred soil, a place called Detroit, people never stop believing in the dream of America, but they know that great dreams take work and sacrifice.”

Working together, labor and United Way can continue their shared legacy of improving the quality of life for families across southeastern Michigan.

To learn more about the history of United Way, visit our website.