What attracted you to the auto industry? It's really what attracted me to [union] organizing. I got out of school. I went to work with the farm workers. I loved the organizing. I loved watching people stand up for their rights. Then when I went to Mexican Industries, I knew this was the kind of work I wanted to do.
First automotive job: Machine operator at Mexican Industries in Detroit in 1995.
Big break: The Mexican Industries campaign. I was leaning toward organizing when I was with the farm workers. But I still thought I wanted to help by teaching kids. It was that campaign that cemented for me what my mother always asked: "What's your purpose in serving?" Find your purpose that serves others. It was that campaign that taught me that.
You lost that first campaign at interior trim supplier Mexican Industries in 1995 but won the second one in 1999. What did you learn from that first loss? We lost the first campaign by 2 to 1. It was awful. In the first campaign we really coddled organizers. A lot of them were undocumented workers, and we didn't want to put them in harm's way. I learned my job is not to coddle organizers but help teach them to stand up and fight for their rights. These workers were strong. A lot of them crossed the border from Mexico and took incredible risks to get here. It was disrespectful of me to think I needed to protect them. They called me to help them organize. The second time they won because they did it. We just provided the tools and training.
What is the major challenge you've faced in your career? Striking a balance. During my career, I've had two parents die. I've had twins. A husband. And a job that's very demanding that could be 24/7. It's been that work-life balance.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career? My mom and dad. They always reminded me that in a big position like this, that is elected and high profile, that I need to stay grounded and humble. They taught me that. And my kids do, too. I remember the first time I was elected, I was on the stage and everybody was shaking my hand. And I got home and I was lying exhausted on the couch, and my son asked, "Could you get my cereal?"
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? Provide flexibility. Some women might not think it a welcoming place. It can be. The ability to have paid medical leave would be incredibly important to that work-life balance.
Tell us about your family. My husband is Frank White. He retired from the UAW as an organizer. And I have twins, Jason and Jesse, who are 12 and in seventh grade. It's a full-time job raising kids. I want to support them in finding their purpose in how they serve. I'm lucky my husband is retired. He doesn't do all the heavy lifting, but he lifts.
What's your favorite weekend activity? Being with my kids and doing what they want to do — which is usually not what I want to do.
What keeps you up at night? How we're going to create a country where everybody can take care of their families. Where people don't have to worry where they are going to get their next meal. If their kids are going to get a good education. What will the world look like for our kids.
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? Mother Jones. She said: "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living. And when in a fight, don't be ladylike." I want to meet someone who said both those things. And she fought on behalf of kids. That's probably the most important thing.
When and where was your last vacation? On spring break, we went to the Smoky Mountains in Gatlinburg, Tenn. We didn't camp. We have a camper, but we stayed in a hotel.
By David Barkholz