Joslyn Williams, former president of the AFL-CIO. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)
Writer and editor

Joslyn Williams, 76, emigrated from Jamaica when he was 16. He stepped down last month as the president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, where he represented 150,000 union members in the Washington region. Williams lives in the District.

What’s the best reason to join a union today?

It is the single most effective group at representing yours and your family’s interest. If you, as a worker, think that you can believe what your employer tells you, that they have an open-door policy and are going to evaluate you solely on the basis of your talent, and that all you’ve got to do is knock on their door and have a discussion with them and they will treat you fairly, then, you know what, I will sell you the 14th Street Bridge, and I’ll toss in the Key Bridge for an extra dime.

You own a lot of bridges.

[Laughs.] In the condition that they’re in, I don’t think I’d want to buy them right now.

Just one in 10 workers is in a union today, down from two in 10 30 years ago. How do you renew interest in joining unions?

To a great extent we have to reinvent ourselves and adapt to the modern requirements. In the old days we had our enemies, the goons. People who were sent with batons. Today’s adversary carries a briefcase, dresses in a $1,500 suit and alligator shoes. The world has changed, and it took us a while to adapt. We have transformed. It’s a different America now. It’s an America that has to compete with the world. It’s an America where we have to recognize our boss. Today a worker doesn’t know who their employer is. He may be working in Pittsburgh and his employer is in Berlin or Bangkok or Hong Kong, and they have employees all over the globe. So we are now competing with other workers who are being exploited. We’ve got to follow the employer to other places and fight for our brother and sister elsewhere. Because if we don’t, then we are on a race to the bottom.

One of the long-standing criticisms of unions is that they protect bad workers.

This idea that the fact that there are bad employees is the fault of the union is bogus. If there are bad employees, it is the fault of the employer who hired them in the first place. Yes, there are bad employees, but there is a procedure for getting rid of them. It is the right of the union to make sure that the employer makes his or her case.

Are there any criticisms of unions that are especially valid?

It’s the same criticism that you can make of any organization. We are a microcosm of American society, and as such we suffer from the same frailties that other organizations suffer from. We have our leadership weaknesses, and sometimes we make bad choices, but that’s what the democratic process is about.

What will be the number one goal for unions in this area over the next five years?

To organize, organize, organize. But in order to organize, you need to become part of the community. You have got to demonstrate that the community can trust you. You have got to demonstrate that you are not just about your members, but the community as a whole.

So you’ve been president for 34 years, and now you’re retiring.

Oh, I wish you wouldn’t use the word “retirement.” I’m stepping down as president
of this organization, but I
am moving on to another plane to carry on the same battle.

More Just Asking

For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.

Follow the Magazine on Twitter.

Like us on Facebook.

Email us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.