Don Drewett’s job requires him to constantly build and maintain relationships. It also requires him to listen and understand people and try to find a common ground.
No, he’s not a marriage counselor. He’s National Legislative Coordinator for AFGE’s Council of Prison Locals.
At a time when partisanship has poisoned Washington and nobody can agree on anything, Don was instrumental in garnering congressional support and eventual passage of two important AFGE-backed bills: The Defending Public Safety Employees’ Retirement Act eliminated a 10% Thrift Savings Plan early withdrawal penalty for federal law enforcement officers who retire after age 50 after 20 years of service. The Eric Williams Correctional Officer Protection Act provides pepper spray to BOP employees to protect themselves following the death of Correctional Officer Eric Williams who was stabbed to death by an inmate while supervising 130 inmates alone at USP Canaan in Pennsylvania.
Don has only been in this position since 2015, but his grassroots work at the local and regional levels on behalf of his fellow union members dates back 25 years ago. His enormous contributions to the labor movement earned him AFGE’s 2017 Law Enforcement of the Year Award.
It all started with the hair
Don didn’t set out to be a labor hero. A graduate of Culinary Institute of America, he opened his first restaurant at age 19. Five years later, after realizing he didn’t want to work 70 hours a week, he applied and got a job as a cook supervisor at FCI Otisville, New York. Don cooked 3,000 meals a day. The prison kitchen was totally different than a regular kitchen, but it allowed him to spend time with his wife and kids.
Don joined AFGE Local 3860 when he was first hired. Being under probation, he was not an active union member but would rather spend the first year of his employment making observations. After his probationary period was up, he was 24, going on 25 and was wearing his hair long. He started reading the union’s contract with BOP when a supervisor told him to have his hair cut. Knowing he didn’t have to, so he didn’t. The next time the supervisor inquired about the haircut, he told him the contract didn’t say anything about cutting his hair. The supervisor eventually backed off. His hair was half way down past his shoulder, and he donated it to Locks of Love to make a statement.
“That was my first foray into saying, hey I really need to read the contract because I think somebody is intentionally messing with me. I found it very empowering that there was a lot in there that I knew better than my supervisors did,” Don told AFGE.
So it was only a matter of time that he got involved with the union. He signed up to become a steward shortly afterwards. He initially did it so he could learn to protect himself, but it quickly became a matter of doing it for the greater good as his friends started calling him up and said this and that happened that was not part of the contract.
He was grateful for Phil Glover, then regional vice president for the council who would come to his facility to train him and other stewards. Glover, who now serves as AFGE National Vice President for District 3, sat down with him and interpreted the contract for him to wrap himself around what the intent of the language was.
Don became proficient in the craft. He quickly learned that the labor movement was very relevant as sometimes things were done for political or personal motivation and not based on merits.
“And that really resonated with me as well as from a morale aspect that I think that the union movement allows people to do for others that you would want done for you if you were in the same plight or position,” he explained.
From steward, Don took on more responsibilities and became Secretary, Executive Vice President, and President of his local.
Building and maintaining relationships
Years ago, Don and his local came to Washington, D.C. twice a year to attend the council’s legislative conference and AFGE’s annual legislative conference. But he had this nagging feeling that that was not enough. To be effective, you can’t just show up in Washington to meet members of Congress twice a year and expect them to carry water for you. That’s why he started expanding his legislative work. He became his local’s legislative coordinator and the council’s regional legislative coordinator to constantly be in contact with members of Congress and their staffs. In 2015, AFGE Council of Prison Locals President Eric Young appointed him to his current full-time position as national legislative coordinator for the council.
Don finds the power in educating and sharing his points of view with elected officials and their staffers who need relevant information when making decisions and drafting policy that impact not only him but his coworkers. He became very passionate about what he does. He got to know and became friends with people in some congressional offices and remain friends with them even after they’ve moved on. In his line of work, these strong relationships have produced some great results that have saved numerous lives.
“Based on where I work, life and death and officer safety and staff assaults and protective equipment is something that matters to me. Nobody should ever have to be in a position of having somebody contact them because they’re the next of kin or they were murdered in the line of duty,” he added.
Don is effective because he understands how minds work. Because his job requires routine collaboration, he makes a point to find a common ground with people he interacts with, especially those who may not agree with him on some issues, so he can get his point across that they can understand and relate to. Finding commonality and understanding what these elected officials are up against is how he won support for AFGE-backed legislation from Republican members of Congress.
For example, when he and his co-workers stopped by Rep. Peter King’s office a few years ago to garner support for the pepper spray bill, he introduced himself as a law enforcement officer who wanted to share with King some staffing and safety concerns. King’s first response was thanking them for their service and proceeded to ask what he could do for them. They told the story of Eric Williams and why they needed protective gear. After the meeting, King told a staffer to meet with them and help get them what they wanted.
“That was one of those moments where we were in the office that we needed to be, we said what we needed to, and it resonated with the elected official to the point where he wanted to hear what we had to say and we had his undivided attention,” Don said.
Don is also unconventional. When his two daughters were younger, he brought them with him to meetings with members of Congress. Besides teaching them a civics lesson on being an active citizen of this country, Don wanted to drive home the point that his safety is a concern for his family. It’s hard for elected officials not to make that connection when two little girls were starring them in the face.
Targeting members of Congress who are members of jurisdiction committees works in his favor as well. The challenge is telling their story and telling it over and over to anyone who would listen. Don is grateful for the help from the national office, notably Legislative Representative Matt Sowards who has knowledge of the inner working of Congress, which allows the council to maximize their energy in the right directions.
Asked how he felt about being selected AFGE’s 2017 Law Enforcement of the Year, Don made it clear that he did not accomplish all this by himself and that it was the work of a collective group of people who were motivated and cared about these issues.
“It’s an honor to have been able to do it with the people that I do it with on a daily basis because they are my brothers and my sisters. It solidifies the labor movement to me,” he said. “I’m glad collectively we’re getting recognized for the great work that we’ve all done. This award isn’t mine – it is theirs. It’s ours.”
Without a doubt, Don is an Explainer-in-Chief, determined to tell the story and tell it in a way that resonate with people who make policy that affects him and his co-workers. But he wants to go beyond that. One of his goals is to show people that they can do it too.
“I have been in the right place at the right time and said the right thing to the right person, and it’s just been kind of special where people that were with me could see it.”