Mike Hellstrom doesn’t want people to give him credit for the building trades’ CountMeIn movement, even though he’s a voice often heard behind the bullhorn at its weekly early-morning rallies at the Hudson Yards development.
“It’s a movement of the rank and file,” he says. “I have the privilege of overseeing the day-to-day activities.”
Hellstrom, formerly business manager of Laborers Local 108, in January became assistant business manager of the Mason Tenders District Council, which comprises four Laborers locals and one union of teachers at Catholic high schools. The son of a Laborers International Union of North America member, he joined the union in 1984. He enlisted in the Navy the next year, serving in Somalia and the Persian Gulf, and returned to the trade after his discharge in 1989.
In 1996, when the Mason Tenders were reorganized and Laborers Local 79 was established, Hellstrom volunteered to learn how to become an organizer. He went on to help bring 1,500 undocumented workers in the interior-demolition industry into the union. He led the 1998-99 organizing campaign at Roy Kay, a nonunion contractor building a subway command center on Ninth Avenue that had ambitions of becoming “the biggest nonunion contractor on the Eastern Seaboard,” as he told the New York Times. In late 1999, the company agreed that all 200 workers on the job would join the relevant unions for their trade.
He went on to lead Laborers Local 108, a garbage and recycling workers’ union formed as part of the Laborers’ late-’90s campaign to root out corruption. His new job with the Mason Tenders, the council says, will enable him to take “a larger leadership role with the building trades as a whole”—exactly what he’s been doing at CountMeIn.
Hellstrom believes CountMeIn will make labor history. Over the last five years, he says, developers such as The Related Companies have increasingly moved toward using nonunion labor, either hiring undocumented workers at low wages and minimal safety standards, or to “open shops” that mix union workers with others who are less skilled—and that jeopardizes the safety, wages, and respect of union jobs. Rank-and-file members, he says, “hit a boiling point.”
He calls CountMeIn, which began last fall, “a 2.0 solidarity movement.”
“Workers are realizing that, regardless of trade affiliation, they have a common interest in solidarity,” he explains. “The rank and file is hungry to stand up for what they believe in.”