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.”
Kooper gestured to my empty rocks glass, and we ordered another round. He asked what I was drinking, and I told him Cynar, a liquor made from artichokes. “I think I was offered that in jail one time,” he said. “I’m joking—I’ve been in jail lots of times, but I’ve never been offered one of those.” He’s often been arrested for acts of civil disobedience related to organizing.
As a teenager in the 2000s, he organized against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids that frequented his small Texas town. At 18, he staged a mayoral bid on a far-left platform and lost. He became a community organizer straight out of high school, focusing on police brutality in Dallas. It was in Dallas that Kooper joined the labor movement and eventually moved to South Dakota as a state representative for AFSCME.
The place swelled with people, and the lights dimmed until we were speaking in relative darkness. Frida’s headdress glowed at me from across the table. He mentioned that Carpenter Bar was a meeting place for Democratic and leftist organizers—some of the bartenders are newly elected progressive state representatives. “The liberal elite hangs out here,” he laughed. “You can tell by the fake-marble countertops.”
South Dakota has been a so-called right-to-work state for as long as the phrase has existed, but the way Kooper talked about the state’s potential—a revival of prairie populism for an intersectional age—made me believe that the rest of the American labor movement has a lot to learn from it.
Somewhere after our third round of drinks, I asked Kooper to tell me his vision for cultivating more young labor leaders like himself. He refused, saying simply, “I trust in the millennials.”
He rattled off his experiences of sleeping in a tent during the Occupy Movement, walking out of class for immigration reform, marching in the streets for Black Lives Matter: “All we know how to do is organize, and we’re not going to show up and see stagnant local unions or labor councils and say, ‘I guess that’s the way things are.’ We’re going to take it over.”
Kooper paused and looked out to the damp landscape. “By the time we’d hypothetically be old enough to collect Social Security, we won’t be able to breathe the air or drink the water, and nothing will grow from the ground. We know that it’s organize or die.”
I asked Kooper if he saw himself as a singular figure in the labor movement. “I see myself as part of an inevitability,” he replied. “As part of a new generation that’s taking ownership over our communities and our places. I’m early, that’s it. There’s a whole wave right behind me.”
We were pushing midnight at Carpenter Bar when Kooper bowed out. He had to get home to his wife—a labor organizer who works for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union—and their 6-year-old daughter. Just before leaving, he told me his family took a recent trip to Walmart and nearly got thrown out of the store. “My daughter started yelling at the workers about how they needed a union—she was right.”