SEIU Local 1984
Interview with Paul Stokes
President, Local 1984 Service Employees International Union
State Employees' Association of NH, Inc.
May 23, 2003
"What we want to do is just make the campaigns available to the membership, and make the membership available to the campaigns."
Stokes spoke with Democracy in Action in his office in Concord.  In the first part of the interview he addresses the union's involvement in the NH primary; the latter part of the interview he discusses maneuvering the union in a state where Republicans dominate the government.

Q. Can you talk a bit about your union and what you're doing for the primary?

PAUL STOKES:  We have almost 8,000 members.  We represent state employees, county and municipal employees, some employees in the private sector, and plus we have about 1,100 retired members.  We're the largest AFL-CIO affiliated union in the state.  We're a local of SEIU International.  We've been around for 63 or 64 years; we affiliated with SEIU in 1984.

What we're doing for the presidential primary is we're inviting all the presidential contenders to come talk to us.  We've had a number of 'em in and more scheduled to come in.  Just so they can get in touch with the members--tell us what they think.  We have a political education committee separate from what we do and they, they're in charge of tracking legislation locally here--our budgets and things that affect state employees, county and municipal employees--but then they also oversee our education on the federal political landscape.  What we've done is just invite all the presidential contenders to come on in, talk to us, make our membership available to them, and let them make up their minds on who they want to vote for.

Q. Can you flesh that out; when you say invite, did you send a letter out or--?

STOKES: No, actually they've been calling us.  We're in New Hampshire.  We don't have to send letter to 'em; they naturally find their way up here.  Candidates and their campaigns, they'd call up and say can I come on over; Dick Gephardt's going to be in town, can he come over and see you?  Sure.

So far, let's see, Rev. Sharpton's been up--stopped in the office with his people; Gov. Dean has been over a couple of times to see us, talk to us and meet with members; Rep. Gephardt has been over.  We saw Joe Lieberman at a couple of events he's had in Concord.  He hasn't been over to the office yet.  John Kerry--I've talked to him on the phone.  He was supposed to be here today as a matter of fact, but he had to cancel; he's got a vote.  He was scheduled for 11:30 to be here, but we got a notice yesterday.  He canceled because he had to stay in Washington.  But he'll be up later on.  Sen. Edwards' people, Caroline McCarley, she's a former state Senator, she was in last week to talk about setting up something for Sen. Edwards to come in and see us.  I talked to a representative, I believe he was a member of the Teamsters working for Dennis Kucinich; he wanted to come over and talk.  He hasn't been up yet, but he showed some interest in coming over and talking to us.  Haven't heard anybody from Carol Moseley Braun's campaign.

Q. When you say us, they would talk to you and--?

STOKES: They talk to me, the officers, and the members.  What we do is if I find out that somebody's coming, if I get some advance notice that somebody's coming in, I just e-mail the political education committee and our board of directors and our staff and just say so-and-so, who's running for president, is going to be here at noon; if you'd like to see him, come on over.  And we'll make a couple pots of coffee and have a free for all...  What we want to do is just make the campaigns available to the membership, and make the membership available to the campaigns...

...They'll come in and talk to me or Beth Campbell's our first Vice President, they'll talk to her--she makes a lot of time available for politics, and then we'll go out and bring 'em around and talk to staff.  We've got about 19 or 20 people on staff.  And then any member--people have got to work , but if they're free at lunchtime, they'll come over...

I guess the most well attended one we had was--Rep. Gephardt came in.  We invited members but we also had members from the NEA--is right across the road from us; they came over, a lot of people from the New Hampshire AFL came over, and from the other unions.

And then Gov. Dean came over and he came and talked to us in the office and then a few weeks later he came back and had an event at the Barley House where he made sure that we were all invited.  It was mostly for labor leaders and organizers.

Q. How long have you been chief here?

STOKES: I'm a state employee.  I'm on a two year leave of absence to be the full time president [elected end of October 2002].  I'm actually a labor inspector for the New Hampshire Department of Labor.  So after my term is up, I go back to my real job that I really enjoy.  So I'm still a state employee.  I'm a labor leader, but I'm not a career labor leader.

Q: You mentioned your political education committee--

STOKES: Our political education committee--we set it up differently this way.  It's a tri-chair committee.  They're the committee that's mandated by our constitution to advise and direct the Board of Directors... in legislative and political matters and recommend endorsements if we make any.  We usually endorse at the state level.  We have three chairs this year: Beth Campbell, my first Vice President, she's the Democratic chair of our poli. ed. committee, and she's on one of the Democratic county party structures--good bleeding heart liberal Democrat; Lee Quandt, who is a retired member, corrections officer, former state Representative, Republican, who is our Republican chair; and we have Lil Emerson, who's an Independent.  So we have a Democrat, a Republican and an Independent tri-chairing the poli.ed. committee.

I wanted to set it up that way because we deal mostly--every four years we go through the presidential stuff, but every year we deal with the legislature.  This is New Hampshire.  Republicans, Democrats, Independents, that's about the make up of New Hampshire.  Our membership is that way.  The legislature's that way.  Unions traditionally have been tarred with the idea that they're the rubber stamp of the Democratic Party.  If we were the rubber stamp of the Democratic Party in New Hampshire, we would get this much done [gestures with hands].  We could guarantee you a one third vote on any issue you want to in the State House.  That's stupid.  We've always endorsed Republicans because the Republicans have been good to us.  We have friends that are Republicans.  Our [the state's] Executive Council, made up of five people, are all five Republicans.  We need three votes on the Executive Council to get our contract funded.  We need three votes on shifting money back and forth between programs.  and we've had good Republican friends on the Executive Council.

Q: The political education committee, was it structured differently before you started?

Yeah, before the political education committee had a chair.  And we have 20 to 25 active members that make the decisions, and they they make recommendations to our Board of Directors.  I wanted to restructure it this way...  we didn't have a lot of involvement by members and we didn't have a lot  of involvement by legislators, because it was seen as here's the union, they're the rubber stamp of the Democratic Party, even though we hadn't been.  By and large we've endorsed the Democratic candidate for governor and a lot of Republican candidates for House and Senate because they were good people and they know what we do.  We only make decisions based on the working issues.  We don't do gun control, we don't do abortion, we don't do any of those other issues; it's issues that affect working families, specifically union working families and state employees.

...We just had the right to work fight here a couple months ago.  Right to work was a big issue for unions.  We were opposed to the right to work bill and we defeated right to work in the House of Representatives 260 to 106.  There's a super majority of Republicans in there.  We did that by working with Republicans and explaining what it meant to us...  It was just us being able to deal on an issue with policy and not with a party.  And that's what we have to do budgetary, contract wise, everything else.

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