As I drove into South Dakota in the warm aftermath of a bomb cyclone, miles of flooded fields gave way to a modest metropolis of bungalows and casinos tucked behind convenience stores. It’s a place that Kooper Caraway, the 28-year-old president of the local AFL-CIO, calls “a Republican utopia.” But, with Kooper’s help, Sioux Falls may be changing.
Last January, Kooper ran on a reform slate that pledged to transform the labor council from an ineffectual old-boys’ club to an organizing powerhouse ready to build a progressive movement. The slate was elected unanimously. At 27, Kooper became the youngest central-labor-council president in the nation.
I met Kooper on a Monday evening at Carpenter Bar in downtown Sioux Falls. The bar had the reliable decor of any trendy bar in America—marble countertops and vaguely midcentury-style seating. A massive stag’s head and the small Dakota-stone fireplace it hung next to were the only indications that we were anywhere at all.
Kooper was wearing an over-washed Frida Kahlo T-shirt under a military-green button-down and sipping a Cuba libre. He immediately started quizzing me about myself and my writing. “I’m sorry, you’re here to interview me,” he apologized. “That’s the problem with interviewing an organizer.”
We sat down with our drinks underneath Edison-bulb lighting, and I asked him to describe the labor council before his election. He compared it to a bat hanging in a cave. The former leadership, he explained, “lived in the dark and relied on the sound of their own voices to get around.” For years, Kooper said they limited their organizing to an annual Labor Day picnic.
Then Kooper and his team took office.
Within a year, they rewrote their constitution, including an amendment that banned white supremacists and fascists from holding office in AFL-CIO-affiliated unions. They organized Sioux Fall’s first Native American Day parade and defeated a bill designed to strip university professors of their collective-bargaining rights. And they formed an International Solidarity Committee comprised entirely of immigrant and refugee union members. (Of the 32 local unions associated with the labor council, the largest by far is the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, whose membership is overwhelmingly immigrant, refugee, and people of color.)
The new International Solidarity Committee equips incoming immigrants and refugees with their rights as workers and helps them organize into unions. “We have a lot of people from western and southern Africa,” Kooper told me, “and they have their traditional tribal relations that they’re bringing over here. Now they’re developing their own organizations inside the labor movement.”
The committee also educates American workers on labor issues elsewhere in the world. “To build that solidarity,” he said, and added that an emphasis on buying American-made products was a losing strategy.
“The largest corporations and the richest folks in the world don’t recognize borders and neither should the unions. If we implement a working-class solidarity that runs across all borders, there’s nowhere for the corporations to go.”
“All borders” includes those of the nine sovereign Native nations within South Dakota. Kooper, who is Native on his mother’s side, has made relationships between Native workers and the labor movement a top priority. We discussed the American Indian Movement in 1970s South Dakota—“I don’t know if there was a courthouse in the state that wasn’t burnt down by the movement, including the one down the street”—the current exploitation of Native hotel workers in the Black Hills, and the trafficking of Native women throughout the Dakotas. Kooper stressed that Native politics, like labor politics, are complicated, but he’s optimistic: “It’s shameful that the labor movement has sat this fight out for 400 years. That’s over. Labor is on the front line of this fight from now on.”