Interview: Dan TenHoopen, AFL-CIO Labor Liaison for the Heart of West Michigan United Way

By Steven Assarian, Business and Career Librarian 

Steven Assarian, Business and Career Librarian at the Grand Rapids Public Library: There’s been quite a lot of ink spilled about unions and union organizing in the last few years. What’s your experience with labor unions? 

Dan TenHoopen, AFL-CIO Labor Liaison for the Heart of West Michigan United Way: I started my career in restaurants. I’d just left a restaurant job and I was walking down the street. Saw a Help-Wanted sign and put in an application. It was a union job at Harlo Corporation.

As a kid, I remember my dad always talking about the battles between him, his union (the UAW), and Kelvinator. Both he and my grandfather were in unions. It was dinner table conversation at all times, especially around contracts. I've been on picket lines with them, all that stuff through the 70s, multiple strikes, stoppages here and there. I never really understood the inner workings of unions, but I was familiar with them.

So when I got that job and my 30 day probationary was up, I signed my dues authorization card. I thought, you know, this is pretty cool. Signing that card was the best, the smartest thing I've ever done in my entire life. I think at the 60 day mark I became an actual union member. That’s how I became a member of IBEW Local 275. I still am, to this day. 

Steve: IBEW, which is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. 

Dan: Right. At Harlo, I helped to negotiate three or four union contracts. I was a steward there for 20 years as well. 

Steve: One thing I think a lot of people don’t understand is the lingo of unions and union workplaces. With that in mind: what exactly is a union contract? What is a steward?

Dan: A union contract is a work contract between the unionized workers and the employer. Typically, a contract will have specific start and end dates. When you get close to your end date, you do internal work: meetings, fliers, polling your membership as to what they want to see in the next contract. You’re preparing to bargain collectively, union and management, negotiating what the next contract will look like.  

So as you start negotiations, you need to make sure your membership is on the same page, make sure that you know and understand what people are really concerned with. You try to find common ground on what you see in language, wages, benefits, safety, health, all the different ways you can change working conditions for the better. 

The steward is the person that guards the contract after it’s hammered out. It's probably the most important part of the whole process of being in a union. They don't get much accolades, but it’s the ground floor grassroots work of being in a union. And if you don't have a good one, it can make things difficult. 

Steve: Okay, so now you're at the Heart of West Michigan United Way. What does your job look like now? 

Dan: Now, I’m the AFL-CIO Labor Liaison for the Heart of West Michigan United Way. It's different work. More mental than physical, but still exhausting, which was surprising. I thought it would be a lot easier. It's just a different kind of difficulty.

I work to raise money and organize volunteers within the scope of many different unions inside of our portfolio of campaigns. I see people that continue to need help, and that's difficult. You don't get a lot of attaboys, but the work itself is very rewarding. I know that every day I come into work and I'm making a difference. 

We just did a volunteer effort for Operation United, which is for veterans services, where we're trying to make sure that veterans get their lawns taken care of and their houses cleaned up. With our Stuff the Bus School Supply Drive, we help make sure kids have the school supplies they need to succeed. 

You might’ve seen the Letter Carriers Stamp Out Hunger food drive. If you look at all the national sponsors, you got United Way, AFL-CIO, National Association of Letter Carriers, etc. I think we had 11 different drop off zones and seven different post offices and buildings, collecting food for the hungry. We did a lot of work on that as well, organizing volunteers and getting the food where it was needed. 

Steve: I do want to backtrack a little bit. So you're a liaison with the AFL-CIO, right? What is the AFL-CIO? 

Dan: The AFL-CIO is a group of different unions, both the national and the local level, that come together to work on different things that have to do with labor issues. There's kind of a three legged stool approach. There’s a political program, contracts and negotiations, along with the leg of community service, giving back to your community. 

There’s around 60 national unions that are affiliated directly with the AFL-CIO. We have about 34, 35 unions that are affiliated at the local level. So what you have is the structure as national AFL-CIO, the state AFL-CIO, that takes care of the whole state of Michigan, and then local chapters of the AFL-CIO. Ours is the West Michigan Area Labor Council, which encompasses Kent County, Ionia, Muskegon, Ottawa, etc. We work on multitudes of different things, whether it be a contract, whether it be organizing, helping with some members, community service projects, you name it. 

Steve: What do you think would be like a few books you'd recommend for someone who's looking to understand the labor movement?

Dan: I love the biography of Mother Jones, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America by Elliot Gorn. One of my favorite books. And there's a book on the Grand Rapids labor history called Strike!: How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids by Jeff Kleiman. That’s a great one.

Steve: Well, thanks very much for sitting for this interview Dan. 

Dan: You’re very welcome. Thanks for your interest. 

You can find more books on American labor history, including Strike!, at our book list here.