April Sims knows firsthand the difference unions can make in workers’ lives.
The newly elected Washington State Labor Council president said her grandfather and mother experienced lifetime journeys from low-paying, no-benefits jobs to union-represented jobs that offered better life conditions.
Sims, 48, said she remembers her mom, Sherrie Courtier, working multiple odd jobs while unhoused, living off government welfare programs and suffering flu and cold bouts without sick leave. But in the late 1980s, when her mom found a job at Western State Hospital, represented by the Washington Federation of State Employees, she was able to have benefits for the first time in her life and eventually retire, Sims said.
“I just remember her frustration that we could never get ahead,” Sims said. “We were trapped in a cycle of poverty. And I remember her coming home from her interview at Western State Hospital and she said, ‘Baby, if I can just get this job, it’s going to change our lives.’ “
Her mom was the second generation of workers in Sims’ family to be represented by a union. Sims’ grandfather Theodore Turner was a sharecropper in Louisiana and protested white farmers being paid more for their cotton than Black farmers were. In the 1940s, he fled to northern Louisiana, then migrated to Washington and later settled in Seattle. In the city, he got a job as a janitor at a department store represented by the Teamsters, “and for the first time in his life, he had the racial and economic justice that he had sought,” Sims said.
Sims made history as the first Black woman president of any AFL-CIO state federation, including the WSLC. She was elected last year and sworn in this year. Her four-year term will last until 2027.
But Sims said her path through life and labor unions hasn’t been an easy one. Early on, she felt the stigma of being a teenage mom after having a child at 18 and dropping out of school as a result, she said. In addition, she saw systemic racism in the labor movement.
Sims first started at the WSLC as field mobilization director in 2015. Before that, she worked at Western State Hospital and the Washington Federation of State Employees.
When she was hired at the WSLC, a vice president told her she’d been hired because she is Black and they needed a Black person on staff. Since then, Sims said, she’s hired people for eight director-level positions, including six women and four women of color under the age of 35.
For Sims, hiring people of color in the labor movement goes beyond the adage that a rising tide lifts all boats. Instead, she said, it is more of a challenge “to consider which boats we should be focusing on, knowing that the conditions that lift those boats will lift all other boats.”
Sims went up the ranks as political and strategic campaign director in 2017 at WSLC, then from 2019 to 2022 served as secretary-treasurer, a second-in-command position working with then-President Larry Brown.
The WSLC is one of the largest AFL-CIO state federations in the country. It represents 600 unions and 550,000 rank-and-file union members — most of the total of 615,000 union-represented workers in Washington. The state ranks third in the country for union density, behind New York and Hawaii.
Sims’ tenure comes at a time when Washington’s labor movement is making headlines. In 2022, more than 270 Starbucks stores nationwide unionized, and key Seattle stores such as Capitol Hill’s Reserve Roastery have joined. The National Labor Relations Board argued the Seattle-based company was illegally refusing to negotiate with the union. Likewise, workers from Seattle-based timber giant Weyerhaeuser carried out a 46-day strike last year, claiming the company refused to negotiate for a contract.
Starbucks workers’ union campaign did not contribute to an increase in union membership rates in Washington, though. Out of the total workforce in Washington, 18% were represented by unions in 2022, down from 19% the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When Sims was campaigning for secretary-treasurer, she was advocating for another presidential candidate, Lynn Dodson — Brown’s opponent.
Former Boeing machinist Brown said he felt lucky he wasn’t competing against Sims because he might have lost. She was running unopposed for the secretary-treasurer job. But once he and Sims were elected, all rivalries were put aside, he said.
“Her talent, her ability, her energy and creativity in no small part [were] a big contributor to whatever success I had as president of the State Labor Council,” Brown said. “She’s one of the best friends I’ve ever met.”
For the first time in WSLC history, with Brown and Sims in charge, they introduced programs aimed at racial equity. In 2020, WSLC was the first AFL-CIO state federation to dedicate a position to racial and gender justice, Sims said.
“We want to double down on our racial equity work and make sure that we are drawing a strong connection between race and class,” Sims said.
When it came to running for the presidential seat, Sims chose Cherika Carter, the former political and strategic campaigns director, to run with her for the secretary-treasurer job. Originally from the Midwest, Carter, who is Black, joined the WSLC in 2018 after being recruited by Sims.
Carter said the new leadership of Black women will help attract people of color, a population that has been historically missing, to the labor movement.
“It’s important for other people who look like me to see that there’s space for us in the labor movement,” Carter said. “When we think about the history of the labor movement, it’s a movement that has often been exclusionary towards Black, Indigenous, people of color.”
During her presidency, Sims said she wants to work on climate justice, racial equity and reproductive justice through the unions. By bringing her lived experiences as a Black woman who has lived through housing insecurity, welfare programs and the stigma of being a teenage mom, she’s doing something that has never been done before, she said.
“I know not just the difference that we make in the lives of workers, families and communities, but I know the unparalleled power and possibility that exists within our labor movement to elevate the whole worker,” Sims said.