Members Say Goodbye to Retiring Council President

10-15-2018

Not many unions can boast a wildfire fighter as their president. But that’s the case for AFSCME Council 5, who just bid a fond farewell to our retiring president at our Annual Convention.

Judy Wahlberg, Council 5’s first female president, retired Sept. 29 after six years in the role. Before that, she served as council vice president, Executive Board member and Local 66 president.  She’s also a Township Board supervisor.

In retirement, Wahlberg plans to get more involved in township government, keep trying to win broadband for the Iron Range, and do even more volunteer work.

“The job I will miss the most is the Council, undoubtedly,” Wahlberg says. “I felt I made a difference there, and I enjoyed working with the people. I enjoyed bringing the Council to where we’re at and seeing the forward momentum continuing.

“I hope we continue to expand,” she says. “I think we’re on the right track.”

Members present Judy Wahlberg with a toy car, her retirement present.
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Mary Falk, who served alongside Wahlberg as Council 5 secretary, says the two of them just clicked and grew a strong working relationship and friendship.

“She never shoots from the hip,” Falk says. “She’s thoughtful, steady, strong, calm. She doesn’t get riled real easy. As a woman, she’s able to look at things through a different lens, I think, and understand some of the challenges people face.

“There’s always been some kind of threat on the horizon,” Falk adds. “We just have to prepare. One thing about Judy, she doesn’t let those things paralyze her. She looks at what the possibilities are to solve the problems.”

Wahlberg’s first job may have played a role in her unflinching style. For seven years, she was a wildfire fighter. A helicopter would fly her into a fire, and she’d set up her pump and hose, then go fight it.

“The scariest part was when they made us a specialized Helitack team,” she recalls. “You’re up in a helicopter up in the Boundary Waters. You had to pay attention to how much weight you were carrying. They decided the doors weighed too much and pulled the doors off to put more equipment on board. I really did not like heights at the time.

“I’m sure it made me stronger,” Wahlberg says. “It made me more unafraid to try things.”

Wahlberg first got active in AFSCME just three months into a new job at St. Louis County. She was supervising crews that did tree thinning and planting. Her local needed a steward, and she got drafted.

She spent years fighting to keep her department open. When it eventually closed, she became a financial worker, determining people’s eligibility for child care assistance.

Wahlberg quickly moved up in Local 66 and Council 5 leadership. Victories during her time with Council 5 included the AFSCME Strong program, which continues to boost membership and build relationships; pension reform; road and bridge funding following the I-35W bridge collapse; safe staffing in group homes and psychiatric hospitals; and the Five for the Fight dues increase, which prepared the Council for the coming anti-worker challenges.

“It wasn’t only one person, it was all of us,” Wahlberg says. “We wanted to survive. We wanted to stay strong. We saw what was happening around the country, and we didn’t want to go that way.”

She likens the fight for bridge funding to the current battle for more corrections officers and workers. In both cases, AFSCME members had gone to legislators for years telling them conditions were unsafe. In both cases, GOP lawmakers’ inaction led to death.

“What more do you need to have happen? We’ve been telling you all along. Now you have your proof,” Wahlberg says. “The message went out loud and clear to them. You get nowhere until something bad happens, which is too bad. But we never let up. We always keep fighting.”

Wahlberg sees the anti-worker Janus ruling as more of an opportunity than a challenge. Council 5 now has record membership and PEOPLE members.

“I think Janus has brought us together a lot,” she says. “To this point, I think it’s been good. It’s strengthened the unions, it’s increasing membership. There are times I think it might have backfired on the anti-union forces behind it.”