Local 66 Celebrates 100 Years

AFSCME Local 66 encompasses most of St. Louis County and the Iron Range and is made up of 19 bargaining units, with a membership comprised of workers from all walks of life – from the sanitation workers who keep our communities clean and healthy, to social workers who travel the region caring for our vulnerable and elderly.

In celebration of this milestone anniversary, the local will be hosting small celebrations and get-togethers in various regions throughout the year. Local leaders are planning to use the anniversary as an organizing tool for reaching out to younger workers who may not be familiar with their local’s 100 year legacy.

“For a union to last a hundred years says a lot,” says Sandy Pernu-Wallin, a social worker and activist in Local 66. “I think it’s really important for the younger people coming up the ranks. A lot of them just don’t know what our union does. We have to start teaching the younger people that we work with about the importance of our background.”

Local 66 was formed in 1919 (decades before public employees had legal collective bargaining rights) by a handful of water and gas workers, with an initial membership of just eight men. The local affiliated under the American Federation of Labor as City and County Public Service Union Local 16566. 

Retired president Alan Netland served on Local 66’s board for 28 years and has studied the local’s history. When the local formed, he says, the workers were mostly fighting for access to jobs and better working conditions. “The whole reason was that everything was based on patronage and family ties. Only a few families were responsible for water and gas, and if you weren’t in one of those families you just didn’t work there,” Netland says.

The local’s original charter, dated May 1, 1919, was signed by legendary labor organizer Samuel Gompers and hangs in the AFSCME office in Duluth to this day. Next to that charter hangs another from 1937, when the local affiliated under AFSCME and became Local 66.

“It’s a major accomplishment,” Netland says of the 100th anniversary. “54 years before collective bargaining rights existed for public workers, members of our union had contracts with their employers. That’s a big deal.”

Local 66 is the oldest AFSCME Local in the country – but that’s not their only claim to fame. Local 66 has a deep, rich history of fighting for workers’ rights in the Northland, as well as at the Capitol.

Six years before the Social Security Act was passed in 1937, the members of Local 66 joined together with Local 8 City of St. Paul workers to establish the Public Employees Retirement Association of Minnesota (PERA). That program still operates today as a fully-funded lifetime income, cost-sharing retirement plan for public employees in Minnesota.

In 1964, Local 66 staged America’s first public employees strike. At that time, public workers did not have legal striking rights – but the workers didn’t let that stop them. The workers were fighting for fair wages and overtime pay. When Duluth Mayor George D. Johnson refused to meet with them, the union went on strike. At the City Hall, workers sat down on the job; dozens more picketed outside the public institution. After three days of public demonstration, the Bureau of Mediation and AFSCME International stepped in, and the workers emerged victorious.

The members of Local 66 didn’t stop there. Just a year later, in 1965, they drafted the first piece of legislation intended to give public employees the right to form unions and collectively bargain. It took seven years to get the bill passed, but the local never gave up. Their advocacy and collective power was vital to winning collective bargaining rights for Minnesota’s public workers.

As Local 66 commemorates their 100th birthday, members are finding a renewed passion for organizing and strengthening workers’ power to create change in our communities.

“A hundred years stands for the strength of our union. It shows the tenacity of people, of the workers. The workers up here have a really strong work ethic, they’re determined, hardworking. Our union brothers and sisters have so much enthusiasm, they’re trustworthy, there’s so much determination in the jobs we do,” says Pernu-Wallin. To her, having a strong union isn’t just about fair pay and benefits for herself and her coworkers. It’s about building stronger communities, providing service to the public and fighting for what’s right for working Minnesotans.

“We’re public servants. We all do something different but we help our neighbors, our community members, and that’s evidence of the strength that our union has created over the years,” she says.

Netland agrees. “It’s we, not me,” he says. “That’s what union is about. I benefit from good contract, but we all benefit - not just about what will help me out. Everybody rises when we all work together, and we don’t want to leave anybody behind.”

On the local’s exact 100th anniversary, May 1, 2019, Local 66 leaders hosted an open house at the AFSCME Council 5 office in Duluth. In commemoration of their union’s humble beginnings and powerful history, the members created a moving display of a century’s worth of Local 66 memorabilia.

The open house culminated in a short presentation by Netland, who explained the significance of the items on display. The collection featured both of Local 66’s original charters – the 1919 AFL charter signed by Samuel Gompers, and the 1937 AFSCME charter signed by Arnold Zander, the first president of AFSCME. Local 66 historical accounts written by members throughout the union’s history, as well as copies of “We Accept the Challenge: A Guide to Duluth's Labor History” were available for attendees to read, take home and share.

Netland wrapped up the celebration with a call for members to renew their commitment to carrying Local 66’s mission and legacy forward.

“Let’s get right to work – that’s what we do in this local, right? We work.”

Local 66 will be hosting commemorative celebrations throughout the Arrowhead region. Watch our Facebook page and the AFSCME Council 5 web calendar for upcoming events.

You can pick up a copy of "We Accept the Challenge" by Erik Peterson, Richard Hudelson and Larry Sillanpa at the Duluth AFSCME Council 5 office and the Duluth Labor Temple.