As the labor community around the world celebrates May Day (also called Workers’ Day or International Workers’ Day) to recognize the historic struggles and gains made by workers, United Way wants to spotlight the history made by Yvonne Brooks, the President of the Georgia State AFL-CIO.
Yvonne was named to her post in a few months ago, after serving as Treasurer of Georgia’s AFL-CIO for 11 years. She’s only the second Black woman to lead a state AFL-CIO federation in America. She’s a role model for me, so I was honored to have a chance to sit down with her to talk about her experiences.
It all started with her mother, a formidable woman who recently passed away at 102 years old. “She was a union member, and helped organize two of her workplaces,” Yvonne recalled. “I didn't even know this until way (into) my career. It was always in my blood, being a union member.” Her mother, who came from a family of 10 children, was always an advocate, looking out after others – a trait Yvonne has inherited as well.
Yvonne started out as a steward in her workplace, a state and city juvenile detention center in St. Louis. After historic flooding hit the city in 1995, she and her colleagues worked long hours to make sure the youth were safe and taken care of. The state gave everyone a bonus after that, but her department fell through the cracks. “This is when I caught the organizing bug,” she recalls. Employees petitioned and filed grievances; Yvonne organized a boycott of the state’s employee service awards event. She and her colleagues wore black armbands. When state leaders asked her why, her response was, “We are grieving the dead presidents that we didn’t get.” They got the bonus, and Yvonne started on a path that would become a career in labor organizing, advocating for the rights of workers.
She went from being a part-time organizer at the detention center to becoming a staff representative at the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (called AFSCME). Having two young children at the time, Yvonne recalls “having to step out on faith” -- which led to her becoming the president of the local AFSCME union. She then moved to Chicago to work as an organizer for the federation, and later at the national AFSCME headquarters, helping public sector employees in seven states advocate for their rights.
Throughout it all, she worked hard to build trust with the workers and the other labor leaders – who were mostly men. It was harder to earn the men’s respect, she recalls. But with five older brothers, “I can deal with the men,” she says with a laugh, “It’s not easy. You have to work three to four times harder.”
As she reflects, there’s a long list of women who took her under their wings, as Yvonne puts it. “A lot of women lifted (me) up.” Her advice for young women starting out in male-dominated workplaces? “If it’s not personal, don’t take it personal.”
Throughout her career in labor, Yvonne has worked to mentor young men and women. “It’s important to help grow young leaders to take our places,” she says. “We have to see it in the young folks and put it before them so they can think about this as something to do. If someone had not mentored me, saw it in me, and pulled me in, I may not have seen it in myself. We have a responsibility to … pull (in) and train our young people to get them interested. We should be readying our young folks to take our spot. Not preparing them to be leaders is a downfall for us.”
What’s the #1 lesson she’s learned as a leader? Unsurprisingly, it’s words of wisdom from her mother. “My attitude and how I deal with people is from my mother – and my compassion comes from my mother," Yvonne says. “I learned this from my mother: do your work. Do “the” work, and you’re not going to always be appreciated by everybody, but your work will stand on its own. Your work ethic will stand on its own.”
Today, Yvonne is proud to serve under the first female President of the national AFL-CIO, Liz Shuler. “I truly believe she is a leader, and she’s someone I would follow.” To build inclusivity at AFL-CIO, Yvonne works on a committee that’s forming guidelines around diversity, equity and inclusion for everyone. And the labor community helps everyone in every community, like United Way. (One example is the National Association of Letter Carriers' Stamp Out Hunger food drive on May 13, the largest one-day food drive in America, which United Way is supporting.)
AFL-CIO and United Way are longtime partners, and Yvonne notes our shared values. “We are in the business of making sure we are taking care of our members through any kind of crisis," she says, "lifting them up and even teaching them how to take care of ourselves. I think United Way has the same goal.”
As a United Way Worldwide employee who’s focused on building up the labor movement around the world, her comment brought joy to my heart. As we wrapped up our interview, I asked this amazing woman if she had any advice for young people who want to change the world. Her response has remained in my head – and heart – ever since.
“Step out there on faith. Take your opportunities. If you don’t take your opportunities, you will miss them.”