Local UAW branch continues history of community outreach

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United Auto Workers Local 602 headquarters located off the 2500 block of Michigan Ave. in Lansing Township, Mich. Photo by Casey Harrison

When 43-year-old Bobbie Ledesma was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had no idea who was going to take care of her or her son.

Ledesma, a native of Saginaw, was with General Motors for almost five years when she moved to Lansing. She was transferred to the GM Lansing Delta Assembly plant and had no family in the area. Ledesma joined the United Auto Workers, or UAW, Local 602 — located in Lansing Township — and became involved with the branch’s Women’s Committee.

It was Ledesma’s fellow union members that helped her beat her cancer.

“I didn’t have any family here,” Ledesma said. “And it was my union brothers and sisters that took care of me when I was sick. Being a single mom they made sure my son was fed and they missed work to take me to my appointments and because of that I had a firsthand look on what the union meant.”

Now almost 15 years later Ledesma is alive, cancer-free, and the chair of the Women’s Committee at UAW Local 602. When Ledesma took over as Women’s Committee Chair, she vowed it was time give back.

“I took that as I was given a second chance and it was time for me to give back,” Ledesma said. “So, after I beat the cancer, I really got involved.”

As committee chair, Ledesma is in charge of organizing community outreach events. In the past, the Women’s Committee at Local 602 has organized events all over the Lansing area such as charity events to raise funds for breast cancer awareness and research and local fundraisers.

The Women’s Committee is just one of the many subcommittees of UAW Local 602’s executive board, according to Bill Reed, president of UAW Local 602. The UAW also has committees to support veterans, civil rights’ groups and any other member of the working class.

“We do a lot of outreach,” Reed said. “Not just us as a local branch, but a lot of UAW members are involved in a lot of the different programs. … There’s a lot of things our committees are doing in working with outreach in not only our members but their families and opening things up to the community for people to get educated and learn what’s going on.”

The UAW’s community outreach will continue Sunday when Ledesma and the Women’s Committee host a Women’s International Day Celebration event with guest speaker Gretchen Whitmer — a former member of the Michigan Senate and announced on Jan. 3 she would be running for Governor of Michigan in 2018 as a Democrat.

“Each year we try to get somebody new, or different as a guest speaker,” Ledesma said. “She’s an amazing speaker. I’m not very into the politics, but I’m into hearing her speak.”

According to Reed, Whitmer has not been endorsed by the regional division of the UAW and is visiting only as a guest speaker.

Despite the UAW’s strong historical ties with the Democratic Party, political affiliation does not strictly sway one way or another just because of union membership

“The union movement in America has typically been linked to the Democratic Party, and that’s been true since the Roosevelt years of the New Deal,” said John Beck, Associate Professor in the school of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University. “But they also have worked with a variety of different organizations on different issues, for example, most UAW workers have a tendency to be pro-gun rights.”

According to Beck, many UAW members can be moderates, who have voted on different sides of the ticket.

“A lot of their members went against the wishes of the national United Auto Workers and went for Donald Trump, and you get a good amount of autoworkers who crossed over and voted for Ronald Reagan, for example, and this time for Donald Trump. And at the same time, a lot of those same auto workers voted for Barack Obama the last two times.”

Community outreach events are nothing new for the UAW, either. The UAW has been hosting events to unite the community since it was first established, according to Dr. Elizabeth Faue, Professor and chair of the History Department at Wayne State University.

“For the most of its time since its inception in 1934 the UAW has had various ways of connecting with the communities, some of which would outreach and join in with different political causes,” Faue said. “They would hold war bond drives during World War II, or collecting scrap for the defense effort.”

As Ledesma and the Women’s Committee get ready to host Whitmer, she hopes this is one of the many outreach projects that make the area a closer-knit one.

“Growing up in Saginaw, the UAW always gave to the community back in the day,” Ledesma said. “We were always there for the community giving back, helping each other out. And somewhere along the way, I felt we lost some of that … I just wanted to give back to the community. That’s one of the many reasons why I took this position. We have to get back out there and start helping each other out and let them know we’re still here.”

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