No Labor Lost

Ellen Golombek plays rough with the Capitol bosses.

Golombek's work at the legislature has earned her the respect of her colleagues.

"It's a hard job defending unions in a state that's less than 10 percent unionized," says Leslie Moody, president of the Denver Area Labor Federation. "Ellen is incredible; she's a woman in a man's field. As a flight attendant, she had to smile and grit her teeth and ask if they want coffee, tea or milk. But she's as tough as nails."

It was her experience with "bad management" at United Airlines that inspired Golombek to become active in her union in the first place.

Just after starting to work as a flight attendant in 1977, Golombek helped board a quadriplegic man in a wheelchair. She had to help empty his catheter, and in the confusion before takeoff, she didn't perform a seat-belt check on him. It was a technical violation of safety rules.

"I was brought up on probation," she says. "The union defended me."
Golombek's involvement in the Association of Flight Attendants deepened, and she eventually started traveling to Washington, D.C., to work on legislative issues--including the ban on smoking in airplanes--for the union.

Golombek's mother was a Democrat and her father was a Republican, so she grew up listening to partisan debate. While neither of her parents was a union member, her grandfather's life story convinced her of the importance of labor unions.

"My grandfather was a coal miner in West Virginia who died of black lung disease," she says. "My grandmother said the only thing that allowed her to live independently were the benefits she got through the union."

Golombek is still a member of the flight attendants' union and is officially on leave from her job at United. She works one flight a year to maintain that status (her husband also works as a flight attendant).

Moody notes that service industries such as the airlines are now the main target of union organizing drives. As a result, more women and minorities have been brought into unions, and they are increasingly taking on leadership roles.

And with a political atmosphere that's suddenly grown hostile to labor, the state AFL-CIO is trying to get its members directly involved in politics. Organizers say 200 union members showed up at a House hearing on the right-to-work legislation, and members of the legislature have been bombarded with letters and calls from union members in their districts. Moody is now organizing a network of 1,000 union members who will pledge to be available at a moment's notice to contact legislators.

"There haven't been members flooding the capitol in the past," says Moody. "It's because this is an urgent fight, and the members are demanding to participate. Ellen is focusing on making sure the members get information about what's happening."

Golombek, who was elected secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO two years ago, finds it ironic that business lobbyists like to paint her as some sort of bully.

"I've been called a union boss, a union baron and a labor czar," she says. "Our union leaders are elected just like legislators. Labor unions aren't perfect, but neither are politicians.

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