As the King County Labor Council's new executive secretary, David Freiboth faces his own labors of Hercules. Last year the Change to Win coalition of several large and important unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), left the labor movement's national organization, the AFL-CIO, because of differences over how to tackle declining membership. That split reverberated throughout the country and led to union locals leaving state and central labor councils. "For all the wishing and hoping and praying that Washington would avoid the kind of pain that happened nationally, it hasn't," says Democratic political consultant Cathy Allen.
For the King County Labor Council, the exodus of locals led the group to cut staff, including the political director. The council's executive secretary, Steve Williamson, also left and took a position with a UFCW local. Freiboth was elected to his new post last month by the Labor Council's executive board. He must be elected to a full, three-year term by council delegates in October.
Elections are what the Labor Council is known for. Consultant Allen calls the organization of 150 union locals, with 150,000 members, the most important local lobby for candidates in King County. In recent years, the Labor Council has used a "labor-to-neighbor" outreach program of labor activists doorbelling union households to encourage support of labor-friendly candidates. The program was key to the narrow victories of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels in 2001 and reform Seattle Port Commission members Lawrence Molloy in 2001 and Alec Fisken in 2003.
Freiboth was at the center of the Port Commission races as the president of the Inland Boatmen's Union. Surprisingly, Freiboth doesn't think politics holds the key to rebuilding the Labor Council. "Yes, we are political players," he says. "We throw weight around in King County, but our basic mission has to do with organizing the unorganized." Freiboth says the Labor Council will help with upcoming organizing drives—something that could be taken right from the Change to Win platform.
Building effective coalitions to advance the labor movement is a hallmark of Freiboth's leadership, says University of Washington political scientist David Olson. "He finds unlike coalition partners. He has shown a lot of personal skill in dealing with diverse interests." Freiboth says two Change to Win locals are already rejoining the Labor Council. He has scheduled talks with others. "I've not detected anything negative that is telling me we don't have an opportunity to put everything back together," says Freiboth.