Council’s Second Annual Public Service Awards Event Was a Fun Way to Honor Serious Achievements
By Rebekah Moan | contributing writer
The second annual SF Building Trades Council’s Public Service Awards, held on Friday, September 22, was emblematic of this year in organized labor. The council honored Julie A. Su, the current acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, with a Public Service Award. (Su was unable to accept the award in-person because she had been sent just days before to the front lines of the United Auto Workers’ strike to try and negotiate a deal with Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis.)
Su, who has served as secretary for the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, is a nationally recognized expert on workers’ rights and civil rights. She has dedicated her distinguished legal career to advancing justice on behalf of poor and disenfranchised communities and is a past recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant.
In a video message played during the awards, she said, “As it turns out, when your job is the acting secretary of labor for the most pro-union, pro-worker president in history, well, let’s just say that the only thing that would keep me away from you all tonight is fighting for workers and a fair contract in other parts of the country.”
The fight for workers is something that the awards’ guest of honor, California Labor Federation Chief Officer Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher, extolled in a fiery, no-punches-pulled speech during the event.
“Those of us who have spent our lifetime in organized labor can tell you there have been times when it sucked,” Gonzalez-Fletcher said. “They were coming after us about pensions, about [project labor agreements], and even in a state like California, we were holding on for dear life.
“We were hoping that things could get better, and we were trying to convince people this is what they needed while the media and corporations and the government were trying to convince people it’s not what they needed. They needed some kind of individual right to do better for themselves. But today things have changed and every poll tells us that.”
Unions’ popularity has soared to as high as 88% with people younger than 30, according to recent polling by public opinion and political strategy research firm GBAO for the AFL-CIO. When asked about various strikes taking place around the country right now, 90% of young people responded with approval.
“People want to be part of the collective to take on Wall Street, to take on corporations,” Gonzalez-Fletcher said. “They realize that the only way to un-fuck the system that has really screwed the next generation of workers is to come together and to fight together.”
The theme of the awards dinner extended beyond fighting together and included honoring those who are sometimes overlooked in unions: women and people of color.
The SF Building Trades Council awarded Kathryn Mallon, an executive vice-president of MWH Constructors, its Visionary Award. She serves as executive director for the Biosolids Digester Facilities Project, which replaces and relocates the outdated existing wastewater treatment facilities in southeast San Francisco with more reliable, efficient, and modern technologies and facilities.
Mallon used her time to thank the Biosolids’ neighborhood nonprofits, which she said care deeply about having people work in the trades and recruited them to work on the project.
“When we create opportunity and open doors, the sky’s the limit,” Mallon said. “It’s just good business.”
The council, recognizing this as well, used the awards dinner to highlight the recently debuted collaborative program Sistas With Tools. SWT is a standalone program fiscally sponsored by SF Clout, the nonprofit arm of the SF Labor Council, in partnership with the SF Building Trades Council. The program is designed to recruit more Black and Brown women into the trades and retain them as apprentices, journey-level workers, and beyond.
SWT Program Director Rashaida Nirobe said, “Labor is a movement that has [played] and continues to play a critical role in the elevation of our nation’s workforce. Movements grow stronger when we intentionally and thoughtfully set the table for — and extend invitations to — all of our siblings with care to include [those] who are most often forgotten, overlooked, and undervalued.”
An advisor supporting SWT, Sabrina Hernandez from IBEW Local 6 said, “The opportunity to work in high-skill and high-wage trades is really important, and this program promotes a pathway for Black and Latina women. If it wasn’t for a friend working as an electrician, I wouldn’t have considered being one myself. You have to see it to be it.”
A Celebration of Labor in Action