Bootstrapping His Way Through the ranks

by Carolyn Shea

Brian Rainville’s can-do attitude vaulted him to a role in one of America’s oldest and most influential labor organizations

Brian Rainville

Brian Rainville ’90 had no formal training in journalism—yet he became a reporter. He never studied communications or labor relations— yet he built the first communications department for the Professional and Technical Engineers’ union in Seattle— and afterwards served as the assistant communications director for the Washington, D.C.-based International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a major force in the American labor movement, and as the communications director of one of the Teamsters’ biggest regional organizing units in Chicago.

Rainville didn’t take classes to learn how to put out a publication—yet he was the editor of the Teamsters’ flagship magazine. And he wasn’t instructed in management, leadership development, strategic planning or conflict resolution—yet today he is executive director of the Teamsters’ Joint Council 25, the umbrella organization for 28 local Teamster affiliates throughout Illinois— including the union bastion of Chicago—and northwest Indiana.

After 16 years of working in organized labor, Rainville likens it to being a student at Evergreen: “No one is telling you what to do,” he says. In the case of unions, he says, “There’s no Harvard Union Review. No one is doing case studies to determine best practices. You just have to figure it out. And that’s part of the fun.”

By Rainville’s track record, he’s been adept at figuring it out for a long time. He studied writing and literature and took photography classes at Evergreen, and worked to do more than just the minimum to earn his credits, especially since his family had such high expectations for him. “My parents wanted me and my brother to attend college,” says the first-generation graduate. “It was the mantra in my household from when I was little. It was something you had to do to get somewhere.”

In 1989, during his junior year at Evergreen, his friend Per Bernstein ’89 helped him get a job as a stringer at The Olympian, covering high school sports to earn extra money for living expenses. “I basically taught myself how to do it,” he says, recollecting the time when he would travel to different events around the area and pore over the newspaper’s archives to model his articles after pieces that had already been published.

“I got a lot of great experience there,” says Rainville, who ended up working as a reporter for the daily until 1994. Many Olympian features later (plus stints helping run his father-in-law’s Tacoma tavern and writing press releases and articles for Evergreen and South Puget Sound Community College)—Rainville landed his first union position, with the Professional and Technical Engineers Local 17 in Seattle, where he got to create the organization’s communications department from scratch. After three years there, he was hired in 1999 as the editor of Teamster Magazine. Within three months, he was promoted to the position of assistant communications director at International’s headquarters.

Eagle and Statue of LibertyHe and fellow alumnus Bernstein have followed similar paths; Bernstein also works for the Teamsters, serving since 2000 as the organization’s deputy director of communications in Washington, D.C., and editing the book 100 Years of Teamster History, 1903-2003. “I would not be here today if it wasn’t for Per,” Rainville says. “Our lives have been intertwined since we met in 1986. I rely on his advice daily.”

Unions are a very important answer to a lot of the problems we have in the U.S. economically.

While at headquarters, Rainville met John Coli, the “very forward thinking” president of Teamster’s Joint Council 25, the governing body for 28 local affiliates throughout Chicagoland. He helped Coli develop a strategic plan for the council and in 2003, he moved to the area (he’s originally from Chicago) to help make the plan a reality.

“John had a plan to make the Joint Council more than an appellate body; he had a vision for making it into something bigger,” says Rainville. In 2002, the Joint Council had two employees. Today, Rainville manages a staff of 13, six of whom are organizers, a couple that are lobbyists and a communications director. Its membership includes workers from a range of public and private sectors, including librarians, school bus drivers, and law enforcement employees; and it has worked legislatively for a tax credit to grow Chicago’s film industry, which Rainville reports “has helped bring in more jobs.” Numerous TV series are now being shot around the city—including ABC’s “Betrayal;” Fox’s “Influence,” starring Christian Slater; and the NBC drama, “Chicago Fire.”

The Teamsters emerged in the late 19th century to organize men who drove teams of mules and horses to transport goods and eventually developed into a truck drivers’ union. In the 1920s, it began to reach beyond its original boundaries, and today supports many other trades. It currently has 1.4 million members and hundreds of locals around the country. Its Joint Councils, set up in areas with three or more locals, help coordinate Teamsters activities in those areas. They also help solve problems and decide some jurisdictional and judicial matters.

Rainville’s council, which was formed in 1911, embraces more than 100,000 members and a broad range of wage earners, from airline pilots to zookeepers. “We represent white collar and blue collar workers,” he says. “Some who make $150,000 a year and some who make $20,000 a year.”

As executive director of the organization, Rainville has witnessed both the losses and victories of different labor struggles. One big win in 2003—soon after he arrived at Joint Council 25—resulted from a nine-day garbage collectors’ strike in Chicago, when the Cubs were in the playoffs. With the refuse piling up, the haulers backed down and agreed to wage and benefit increases for 3,300 workers. “It felt good that the entire city was behind the people who truly make the city run,” says Rainville. “It was one of the rare times that we’ve been able to get the upper hand with business.”

Despite what he sees as generally anti-union coverage by the media, Rainville regards his organization as “a really good lamplight for the labor movement. We’ve done a lot of good things.” He believes unions are “a safety release valve” for society and “a very, very important answer to a lot of the problems we have in the U.S. economically.” But he also adds, “I think there are obstacles of varying difficulty in front of us.”

These days, Rainville doesn’t do much writing. “Sometimes I write business letters or maybe a press release,” he says. More often, he’s on the other side of the interview. Outside of work, he enjoys spending time with his wife and playing with his 7- and 8-year-old sons. And he dreams of helping to lead the working classes to triumph.