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With her self-deprecating grin, shoulder-length hair and upbeat demeanor, Sharyle "Shar" Knutson is no one's stereotype of a big-city union boss.

Shar Knutson is first woman to lead state AFL-CIO

Bill Klotz)

Sharyle “Shar” Knutson, 61, the first woman to lead the Minnesota AFL-CIO, gained insight into workers’ lives and needs as a young single mother in the 1980s trying to figure out how to keep a roof over her family’s head. The first step she took was to go back to school and learn a trade. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

With her self-deprecating grin, shoulder-length hair and upbeat demeanor, Sharyle “Shar” Knutson is no one’s stereotype of a big-city union boss.

But a union boss she is-and the pronoun is important: Knutson, 61, is the first woman to become president of the 300,000-member Minnesota AFL-CIO.

Last August, the union’s leadership elected Knutson to replace Ray Waldron, who retired October 1 after serving nine years in the top job.

At the end of this month at Minnesota AFL-CIO’s annual convention, the union’s membership-from some 1,100 union groups around the state-will vote whether to keep Knutson as their leader, regardless of the pronoun needed. That, too, would be a first.

So far, no challengers have stepped forward.

Hy Berman, retired University of Minnesota labor professor, says Knutson’s election would be an historic moment. “I don’t know how many states have women leading state federations, but I suspect that Minnesota may be the first,” he says. “What we have in Minnesota is, I think, unique.”

And it’s not like she hasn’t paid her dues: Knutson served nearly 12 years as president of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly. And she held top positions on various state and national AFL-CIO leadership boards as well.

But when Knutson was a young, divorced mother in the early 1980s, scaling labor’s leadership heights wasn’t in her plans.

“I was thinking about feeding my family and keeping a roof over my head,” says Knutson, the daughter of former Waldorf Paper Products Co. worker Lee Hitzman, a strong union man during her childhood in Fridley.

“I found myself as a divorced mom with two kids,” she adds, “and I couldn’t find a job that paid more than General Assistance.”

So she earned a degree from Anoka Technical College, then found a job coordinating medical records at the former St. Paul Public Health Department. There Knutson joined the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1842.

She moved fast, serving as steward, sitting on committees and building a reputation-and by 1988 was president of the local. A year later, Knutson joined the administration of then-St. Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel as a policy analyst.

“I’ve been blessed, I guess,” she says when asked to explain her rapid rise through the ranks. “I worked hard, and maybe I had the right skill set.” She pauses, then flashes a bemused smile. “We’re Minnesotans, you know: We don’t brag.”

Competitive quibbling

Knutson’s talents first became public in a big way after Norm Coleman became St. Paul’s mayor in 1994. Knutson had moved onto the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly to become assistant to then-president Louis Greengard.

She quickly found herself in the middle of a fight against the new mayor.

Coleman launched Compete St. Paul, an initiative aimed at lowering labor costs through competitive bids for some city services. The move, which threatened to displace some unionized city workers, was based on a model that reportedly had worked well in Indianapolis.

Barb Kucera, director of the University of Minnesota’s Labor Education Service and a long-time ally, remembers Knutson working feverishly to block the initiative.

“She spearheaded a coalition of unions and some community groups around stopping what the mayor was proposing,” Kucera says. “They succeeded in getting [favorable] language adopted by the city council.”

The resulting ordinance did not prohibit competitive bidding outright. However, it does require any contractor who gets hired to meet certain standards. “And they are pretty high standards,” Kucera adds.

Labor was open to competition during the dispute, Knutson says now, just not on Coleman’s terms.

“It wasn’t that we just wanted to stomp it down,” she says. “But the way that Coleman was putting it forward, it was not a fair process for the workers and it wasn’t a good process for the city. And I say that from the bottom of my heart.”

Political unity

Greengard retired as assembly president in the middle of the Compete St. Paul battle, and Knutson replaced him. Kucera thinks that Knutson’s leadership during the fight had something to do with that-and with her recent rise to the top of the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

“When people look at who should be president of the state AFL-CIO,” Kucera says, “one of the keys roles to that position is to be a spokesperson. She clearly demonstrated that she had skills in that area.”

When she became AFL-CIO president last October, Knutson hit the ground running.

In January, she hired Kris Fredson to be Minnesota AFL-CIO’s first permanent political director. Since then, the federation has convinced two Minnesota United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) locals that had been affiliated with the Change to Win coalition to re-affiliate with the AFL-CIO.

That’s a bigger deal than it sounds: The Change to Win is a coalition of American labor unions formed in 2005 as an alternative to the AFL-CIO.

The Minnesota AFL-CIO has also convinced the local branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), another Change to Win affiliate, to participate in its 2010 political program.

And now the statewide federation is working with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to reform the state’s workers’ compensation policies.

If Knutson, who now lives in St. Paul, is elected to a full term, her leadership will immediately be tested-and not just by the steady decline in union membership and the labor movement’s ever-changing demographics.

She will be faced with unifying Minnesota’s unions in support of DFL gubernatorial candidate and former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton in time for the November election. Despite labor’s traditional pro-DFL tilt, that may not be quite as easy as it sounds.

In the primary election in August, the state’s three most influential unions-Education Minnesota, AFSCME Council 5 and the SEIU Minnesota State Council-were split in their support of Democratic gubernatorial candidates.

AFSCME Council 5 backed Dayton, who won the primary. The teachers union backed state Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the party-endorsed candidate. SEIU backed no one.

For retired professor Hy Berman, the jury is out on whether Knutson can marshal union forces to swing uniformly behind Dayton.

“The unfortunate thing is that there aren’t as many forces to muster as there used to be,” he says. “Then, what exists is much more fragmented and not unified as they were in the past.”

However, Berman adds, the opportunity to bring the unions together exists: “And [Knutson] may be able to do it.”

Her friends are confident that Knutson can unify labor around Dayton and against Republican candidate Tom Emmer and Independence Party contender Tom Horner.

“She’ll do what they’ve done a lot in the past-focus on the common enemy,” Kucera says. “In this case, regardless of who got endorsed in the primary, everyone agrees that Tom Emmer is not the governor the unions want.”

Jim Scheibel, the former mayor and now a teacher at Hamline University, agrees.

“It is always hard after close contests like this to bring people together. But Shar reminded them over and over again that we have the bigger battle ahead to defeat Emmer,” Scheibel says.

“And so I do think the union voice, and particularly her voice, will be heard in this election.”

The Knutson File

Name: Sharyle J. (Shar) Knutson

Age: 61

Job: President, Minnesota AFL-CIO

Lives in: St. Paul

Grew up in: Fridley

Family: Divorced mother of two daughters: Jennifer, 36, of Mahtomedi, and Rebecca, 32, of St. Paul. Both daughters are stay-at-home moms with professional backgrounds in the nonprofit sector.

Education: Associate’s degree, Anoka Technical College; B.A., nonprofit administration and labor, Metropolitan State University.

Hobbies: “I read, I ski, I garden. I live in the city, and I’ve got a big enough backyard so I’ve planted natural gardens. I’ve got lots of butterflies. I tried to do a vegetable garden this year.”

Favorite part of her job: “What I like most is talking with people. I’m not really an extrovert, but what I like to do is talk with people and find out about their jobs and what they do and how they feel. Everyone has a story.”

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