AFSCME Activism: A Family Tradition

As AFSCME Local 66 celebrates the union’s 100th anniversary this year, members are looking back on their union’s long, rich history – and how it’s impacted their lives, families and communities. For Sandy Pernu Wallin, the AFSCME connection runs deep. Sandy – a second generation Local 66 member - is organizing her AFSCME siblings to carry her family’s passion for union activism into the local’s next century.

For 30 years, Sandy’s mom Mitzie Pernu worked as a 911 dispatcher in Virginia, MN and was a passionate activist in Local 66.

After a tumultuous divorce, in 1962 Mitzie moved Sandy and her three siblings to her hometown of Virginia so they could be closer to her family. “Mom was thinking, ‘now I have to have a job where I can raise four kids,’ which was unheard of at that time,” Sandy says. She fondly recalls how her mom ended up working as a 911 dispatcher.

“She ran into the mail carrier and he told her to take the civil service exam for the dispatcher at the Sherriff’s office,” Sandy says with a chuckle. Mitzie passed the exam with flying colors. But despite her qualification for the job, the Sheriff’s office didn’t want to hire her.  “They didn’t think she could manage the shift work with four kids,” Sandy explains. But with the help of her parents, Mitzie was able to obtain child care and convince the office she was perfectly suitable for the job.

“Mom started as a dispatcher, then went back to school and got certified to be a 911 dispatcher. At that time, a 911 dispatcher was at the level of a front desk clerk,” Sandy explains. “My mom felt that that type of job was so critical on a day-to-day basis with what they had to deal with.”

Sandy says her mom saw and felt the benefits of working union right away. When Sandy’s little brother had a brain tumor in the 4th grade, her mom’s union benefits helped keep the family afloat. When her brother had to go to the Mayo Clinic for treatment, Mitzie was able to focus on what mattered most: taking care of her sick child.

“The county gave her time off, she could use her sick leave, her benefits paid his medical bills,” Sandy says. “She found that having a union helped with her benefits and wages, so she raised us to believe that a union is what helps protect the middle class.”

Sandy, a social worker, joined Local 66 after a few years at a private nonprofit. “I realized how difficult that can be,” she says, “and I needed more security.” Sandy’s mom had taught her that working union was the path to security, health and stability. As soon as she got hired by the county, Sandy says, she knew she wanted to get involved in her union. Sandy says she carries her mom’s values in her heart as she travels St. Louis County caring for our community’s elderly and vulnerable. “I think that what my mom really taught us is giving back to the community,” she says fondly.

Sandy’s union activism closely aligned to the family values passed on from her mother. “She instilled a lot of strong values within us: that you work hard to build the community.” That’s what AFSCME’s all about, too,” says Sandy. And in carrying those values forward, she says, it’s important to recognize that we stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us.

“We didn’t just come about having health care, vacation time, sick time. This is something we bargained for. Items were negotiated because they were necessary for our families and our workers,” she explains. “It was our former union organizers who were able to get those benefits,” she says. “With the younger generation,” she says, “it’s so important to understand what people went through to get them where they’re at right now.”

For Local 66 activists like Sandy, getting young workers more involved in strengthening our union has become a top priority. “My mom’s story shows the importance of being in a union, the strength that brings to our families and communities. That’s why it’s just so critical that we maintain and uphold our unions,” she says.

This kind of cross-generational commitment to giving back and organizing together for fair treatment, healthier families and stronger communities is a perfect reflection of our shared AFSCME values: dignity, opportunity, justice and prosperity for all.

“I think about my mom and how she had been so involved,” Sandy says. “She would have loved to be here to celebrate Local 66’s 100th anniversary. I like to think she’s looking down on me and hoping that we all continue on with the battle.”