A lifetime devoted to moving the community in a positive direction brings three well-earned accolades and awards for Mike Matejka, the long serving former alderman for the City of Bloomington and ardent advocate of
organized labor, who currently serves as Legislative Affairs Director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council.
October 11, 2012, witnessed the Collaborative Solutions Institute (CSI) honor Matejka as one of the six Men of the Year in Bloomington/Normal; On February 21, 2013, the Alumni Association of his alma mater, Illinois
State University (ISU), honored both Matejka and his wife Karen “Kari” Sandhaas, with the E. Burton Mercier Alumni Service Award; and on April 13, 2013, the Multi-Cultural Leadership Program in Bloomington/Normal honored Matejka with its 2013 Service Award.
“You can’t outwork Mike,” says John Penn, vice president of the Laborers International Union of North America, who also serves as Midwest Regional Manager for the union. “His mind is going 24-7, he never lets up,” adding,
“he’s always doing something for other people, he has never once asked for help for himself.”
Cheryl Gaines, CEO of CSI said, “So much gets done in this community,” adding, “McLean County is a great place to live and a lot of it has to do with these men.”
Executive Director Sonya Mau, of the Multi-Cultural Leadership Program in Bloomington/Normal adds, “Mike has a long record of proactive effort and has exhibited a lifelong dedication to making the community a great place
to live, work and play,” adding, “Mike is not afraid to step up and take risks as a leader because the best leaders want to serve first and that gets people to gather around them.”
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The journey of a lifetime begins with a few simple steps. “My dad was a union transit worker,” Matejka says of his early life in East St. Louis, “who was a motorman at the end of World War II. He was also very involved
with the church and community activities,” adding, “the St. Vincent DePaul Society held meetings at our kitchen table.”
As a young child Matejka says there were “a series of events” that had helped shape his commitment to the community. At the young age of five during a hot summer as workers began building Interstate 40 his dad took
him on a drive west through the neighborhoods. “Dad pointed out the difference in homes and that stuck with me as it was the first time I was aware of the different economic classes.”
Oftentimes Matejka would accompany his dad when a family called church officials asking for assistance, and the two would deliver groceries to them. “Those actions had an influence on me,” Matejka says, “they were
people who I got to know and appreciate as human beings,” adding, “this was not charity, it was helping another family.”
The young man Matejka embraced his Christian faith and left home at age 13 to enter the seminary where he spent six years as he studied to become a Catholic priest. During his sophomore year of college, “A priest there
informed me I talked too much about the poor,” Matejka says, “he kept telling me Catholics were middle class and if I didn’t agree I had no place being there,” adding, “that was my ‘there’s the door,’ message.”
Searching for an affordable alternative to finish his college degree, Matejka chose ISU. Ironically, it was another member of the clergy who helped steer him to his activism. The Catholic Student Center on campus had provided the resident priest, very much an activist himself, the opportunity to inform the students of the deplorable conditions the migrant farm workers toiled under. He also spoke of Caesar Chavez and his
efforts to organize the workers. “We ran with it,” Matejka says. After spending time and effort advocating for fair treatment of the farm workers, he soon began to help the local fire fighters as they sought a
first-ever collective bargaining agreement.
The 56-day effort to gain a collective bargaining agreement led to Matejka’s involvement with organized labor. “I met John (Penn) and Ron (Morehead) during that time and they invited me to come to a meeting of
the local Trades and Labor Assembly.” The local central body had intermittently published a newspaper and “when they asked me to be a part of it I said, ‘I can do that,’ so in 1980 I started writing the Union
“During the Normal fire fighters strike Mike became real active,” Penn says. “He was a legend during that time as he would get a lot of people out to the rally in support of the fire fighters,” adding, “shortly after
that we asked him to work with us at our labor newspaper.”
As the paper represented a part-time position Matejka also taught labor education at the University of Illinois. This experience later led to Matejka earning a Master’s degree in Labor Studies from the University of
As the years slipped past Matejka authored several excellent books on labor history, served as a “roads scholar” for the Illinois Humanities Council where he delivered public talks at 70+ libraries, universities and
civic associations, and served on countless boards and other civic groups in search of a better quality of life for residents.
After establishing the Union News as a source of valuable information Matejka took on even more duties for organized labor, when he served as co-director of the Great Plains District Council L.E.C.E.T. program. “The
whole idea was to determine how do we make friends and reach out to the contractors our members work for, the government, and private industry to let them know what it is we in organized labor and the Laborers
specifically, have to offer and to let the community know we are a vital part of all community efforts.”
Now that he serves as Legislative Affairs Director for the ‘Council’ Matejka says, “It’s much the same with more emphasis on reaching out to government officials about who we are, and what we bring to the table,”
adding, “and it’s also about educating the members so they understand the issues, why it’s important to vote and to volunteer, and how actions have a direct impact on their employment and their life,” adding, “the biggest
challenge for organized labor is we are often viewed as alien to the community and seen as outsiders, when our wages help strengthen the local economy and community, so we give quite a bit back to the community.”
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The LABOR Paper asked Matejka to comment on the three awards and offer suggestions for those who want to become involved with community efforts.
First, one of the six Men of the Year. “You can tutor a child in reading or math, or spend a day working at a food bank. You can also participate in a once a year telethon, or other fund raising effort for a charity.
These actions are not too time-consuming and they are things everyone can do. You can help the letter carriers with their annual food drive. And trades members can use their skill set and offer assistance to social
service agencies which seem to need plumbers and electricians for upgrades, or they always need walls painted,” adding, usually which they can’t afford.”
E.L Burton Mercier Alumni Service Award. “What made this so special was my wife and I got the award together. We have a partnership and a family commitment, but she’s active and out there too. It made me reflect on
education and how important it is as the Newman Center at ISU allowed us to explore ideas and encouraged activism and involvement.”
The 2013 Multi Cultural Leadership Program (MCLP) Community Service Award. “Diversity is something I’ve always embraced as an opportunity, not a problem. The more people with various backgrounds we include in the dialogue makes the community a much richer place to live.” Matejka has spoken at a number of MCLP seminars on diversity and Laborers Local 362, held a MCLP training session at its hall.
As the conversation closed Matejka offered some final suggestions. “As union members we’ve got skills and talents not always recognizable. So we need to get out into the churches, schools and all the places people
gather to show the community we have a lot of value to bring as we already contribute every day.”
As he pursues his duties as Legislative Affairs Director, and as organized labor continues to come under attack from anti-union forces, Penn, who oversees the Laborers for the entire Midwest region, offers Matejka some
well earned compliments. “That job is a good fit for Mike. He does his homework. He can rebut those who don’t support our issues. Mike never goes into anything without being prepared. He does a really great job and he
has a job with us as long as he wants,” adding, “he’s one of those guys that when he retires will still stay active.”
Penn then delivers the ultimate compliment for someone who devotes his life to a better community, “Mike is a good family man.”