In South Dakota, a Young Labor Leader Wants to Rebuild a Culture of Solidarity

Kooper Caraway

Kooper Caraway, the 29-year-old new president of South Dakota’s AFL-CIO, grew up in a working-class family and cut his teeth fighting ICE as a high schooler. Now his vision for labor includes union-run housing and childcare: “It’s all about building a working-class culture of solidarity.”

New president of South Dakota's ALF-CIO Kooper Caraway. (Photo by Adira Botella)

Interview by
Meagan Day

On September 1, Kooper Caraway was sworn in as president of the South Dakota State Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. At twenty-nine years old, he’s the youngest state labor federation president in the country.

“Growing up native in a working-class household, I know what it feels like to work your ass off and still struggle to survive,” Caraway said in a campaign video directed by Means TV last year. “It’s time for a labor movement with a bold vision of the future that fights for all working-class people.”

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Caraway about what that bold vision should look like, including the establishment of union housing and childcare predicated on the values of democracy and solidarity. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


MD

What inspired you to run for president of the state labor federation?

KC

A few years ago I ran for president of the Sioux Falls Central Labor Council, which is the largest labor council in the state. When I was president we were able to build some good community and political programs, and we started developing a model for a dynamic, progressive, unified labor movement.

So when the opportunity came up, with our state federation president retiring, I and workers from across the state felt like we could take some of the successes we’d seen and models that we had established at the local level and apply them to the entire state labor movement.

MD

When you were president of the Sioux Falls Central Labor Council, you got rid of anti-communist clauses and instead banned far-right ideologues from holding elected or staff positions in affiliated unions, which is something that Jacobin interviewed you about at the time. What was the political rationale for that decision?

KC

Our constitution was quite out of date. I think the preamble said something about protecting Sioux Falls from the Italians. So we were going through and updating it article by article, and eventually we got to a section that banned communists, socialists, and anarchists from participating in a meaningful way in the labor council.

Clearly the folks who came before us felt that these groups were a threat to the labor movement. But we asked ourselves: do we feel that way? And there was a discussion, and we decided that the answer was no, obviously not. Communists, socialists, and anarchists have contributed quite a bit historically to the labor movement. So we decided to eliminate that.

But then the next question was: who is a threat to the labor movement? And the answer we arrived at was white supremacists and fascists. Those ideologies pose a clear threat to labor movement, to working-class unity, and to working-class people in general. So we simply eliminated the words referring to groups we didn’t feel threatened by and included a reference to the ideologies that we do feel threatened by.

MD

What’s your background, and how did it inform your participation in the labor movement?

KC

I come from a working-class family. I was born in a small town in Alabama. We moved around to wherever the jobs were, so I lived all through the South, in many different cities in Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas. I went to probably four or five different middle schools, and four or five different high schools. And that’s just the reality for a lot of working-class folks. You move to a place for work, the jobs dry up, you move somewhere else.

My grandfather was a steelworker in the small town of Lone Star, Texas, and a strong union member. So I had not only the mobile working-class family experience but also a foundation that gave me a basic understanding of solidarity, and the need for working-class folks to stick together in order to get stuff done.

As I got older, I started looking into why my family and others like us were forced into the positions we were in, regardless of how hard we worked. It became clear that the system is not set up to support families like mine. It’s not set up to reward real hard work or actual sweat. Instead it was set up to reward the people who were exploiting families like mine. I think I was fourteen or fifteen when I came to that conclusion.

I started organizing in high school. One of the first things I did was organize a walkout over Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] raids during the Bush administration. We had chicken processing plants in the small town I was in, and they came and set up shop for a couple weeks to conduct raids. This was right after the establishment of ICE, and their MO then was to focus on these large plants. We held protests and marches against ICE, and they ended up leaving town after that.

When I left high school, I joined the labor movement. I started community organizing, labor organizing, and I’ve stuck with it for eleven years.

MD

How did you end up in South Dakota, and what’s the labor movement like there?

KC

AFSCME [American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees], the public sector union in South Dakota, needed an organizer and representative that had experience working within a right-to-work framework. South Dakota has been right-to-work since the 1930s. So they reached out to me, and in 2016 I became the statewide representative for AFSCME.

The labor movement in South Dakota is getting stronger. At the last AFL-CIO central region meeting that I attended, South Dakota was the only state in which union density had increased consistently over the past two years. More and more folks in South Dakota are choosing to join unions when they go to work in a union shop, rather than be free-riders. And labor organizations and unions are opening up to new ideas, and thinking about how to be more dynamic and meaningful in people’s everyday lives.

MD

Let’s talk about those ideas. How can organized labor better integrate itself into working-class people’s lives?

KC

An important starting point is to recognize that someone’s identity as a union member shouldn’t start and end at the door to their workplace. It should be mobile. They should carry it with them as they enter their communities, their houses of worship, the voting booth.

This requires changing the messaging from the unions. We don’t want to just be seen as insurance salesman. We want to really invest in instilling this culture of solidarity, and that requires focusing not only on the workplace but also helping workers address issues outside the workplace.

Whether it’s the opioid epidemic, police brutality, food deserts, or paying for college, all of these things impact the day-to-day lives of working folks. And there’s no reason why the purview of the labor movement should be limited to what’s covered currently under the union contract.

We can expand that purview and have a great deal of influence if we pool our resources and rely on the solidarity that we have with each other. We can focus on investing in building things like union housing and union childcare. In Sioux Falls childcare costs are astronomical, and a lot of folks struggle to pay for it.

But unions can invest in building childcare facilities for union members’ children, and that way we can also teach growing generations the values of solidarity and justice. We need to pair community programs that are meeting the needs of everyday working folks with cultural programs to teach the history of the labor movement.

MD

Are union childcare and union housing projects that you plan on undertaking in South Dakota?

KC

Yes, union-run childcare centers was one of the primary tenets of my platform. And it’s very realistic. Many organizations have their own childcare programs. A lot of us grew up attending some kind of daycare in a church basement. If churches and other organizations can set up their own childcare, so can we.

What we’ll do is establish a separate nonprofit organization, set up a board of union leaders, fill out all the paperwork, find a space and rent it out, and then sign our folks up to attend it. Obviously we’ll bring in experts to develop a good curriculum, and policies and procedures. But there’s no reason why if the church down the street can run their own childcare center, a labor movement with thousands of members who contribute a little bit out of their check every single month can’t do it even more effectively.

MD

And what about housing? How is that gonna work?

KC

We actually have some pretty great models for that. There have been many times throughout history where labor federations themselves have created their own building companies to build their own housing cooperatives. There are many apartment complexes scattered across Germany that were built by the German labor federation and run democratically by thousands of workers themselves.

Good, affordable housing is a real issue. Our members build all the houses anyway, so we might as well own some of them. We might as well build housing complexes that can be democratically controlled, so that our values of solidarity and justice can extend into whole neighborhoods. Ideally we have people in cooperative union housing feeling like they have control over their living situation, and then dropping their kid off at a union daycare center and feeling like they have democratic control over their child’s education and nurturing.

MD

One of the major casualties of McCarthyism was the social world that the Communist Party and those in its orbit had built for themselves and other working-class people to inhabit, which included not just necessities like childcare and housing but also summer camps, musical choirs, sports leagues, and all kinds of cultural and educational programming. Does that sound like your long-term vision for integrating unions into the regular lives of working people?

KC

Definitely. I plan on heavily investing in working-class arts and culture. For example I plan on naming a poet laureate of the South Dakota labor movement. And I want to create positions for people to serve as official art ambassadors, so that as they’re performing in their own artistic circles they’re promoting our working-class values, and they’re also bringing art and culture into our union homes as well.

And we’ve even already talked about union-run scout programs that would be alternatives to the Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts. They would teach good labor values, like the values of sharing and working together to optimize results instead of individualism and competition. It’s all about building a working-class culture of solidarity and carrying those values with you wherever you go.