Local President Drives Thousands of Miles to Empower Members

Local 1623 president Jeffrey McDonald at Itasca State Park, where he got his start with the DNR.
Local 1623 president Jeffrey McDonald at Itasca State Park, where he got his start with the DNR.

When Jeffrey McDonald hits the road to talk to his Local 1623 members and spread the power of being active in AFSCME, he doesn’t go from office to office, or even building to building.

McDonald drives for hours across northwest Minnesota, all the way up to the Canadian border. He travels to far-flung DNR sites in the woods that may have only one or two people stationed there. And he gets up early and stays out late, trying to catch members.

“They’re out in the field, they’re cruising timber or blowing beaver dams or doing park cleanup,” he says.  “It is tough. When you drive three hours to a site, you can’t be everywhere at 8 in the morning when they start, you can’t be everywhere at noon when they come in for a break. You can’t cover every square inch of the parks trying to find them.”

Yet the challenges that go along with being president of a widespread DNR local don’t slow McDonald down a bit. He spent two weeks last year visiting about half the sites in his local, then spent another two weeks visiting union workplaces in Saint Paul and at the University of Minnesota, using lost time and his own vacation days. He keeps doing site visits, a few days at a time.

“There’s 57 work stations in my local,” he says. “You put thousands of miles on. You almost have to take time off.”

McDonald says he visits workers in person because one-on-one conversations are essential for his local to be AFSCME Strong.

“When you do site visits, they’re happy to see someone from our union,” he says. “They say it’s nice to talk to someone face-to-face. It’s more personal.”

During a visit, McDonald passes along a copy of the state contract and answers questions. He tells workers about the raises and benefits won by the state negotiating team, which McDonald was a key part of this year. He asks how people like their jobs and whether they have any concerns. With younger workers, a crucial part of the visit is educating them about union gains and labor history.

“What we have today, how nice things are, that’s because of unions,” he tells them. “If we didn’t have unions, you wouldn’t have weekends off, you could be working 16 hours a day, you could get fired and replaced at will. They can’t fire you just because they don’t like you or you speak up. You have that protection.”

McDonald finds that many workers think they have strong benefits and pay because the state gave it to workers “out of the goodness of their hearts. They don’t get that everything in that contract is something that’s been fought for.”

He knows that workers have a lot to lose if we don’t all stand together. He’s been with the state for 32 years, starting at Itasca State Park and then working as a general repairman at the Badoura State Forest Nursery.

He wants younger people to get active in AFSCME to defend and retain benefits already won, such as a dignified retirement. He works to get more young members attending meetings and the AFSCME Council 5 Convention, where he hopes they might have the same transformational experience he did.

McDonald is hard of hearing and used to be shy because of that – until he went to his first Council 5 Convention, where he met other workers from around the state.

“You start listening and learn they’ve got problems, just like we do,” he says. “Pretty soon, I’m talking to guys like I’ve known them for a long time. The more you do it, the easier it is.”

Through his union activism, McDonald has made dozens of friends, gained confidence in public speaking and even fought publicly – and successfully – against a legislative effort to privatize DNR fish hatcheries and tree nurseries.

Thanks to his site visits and one-on-one conversations, his local keeps gaining new members.

“The more numbers we have, the stronger we are,” he says. “To get these benefits, we have to fight for them.”