Charles Wowkanech is president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, which represents the rights of more than 1 million members belonging to labor unions in New Jersey. These include people who work in the trades, such as electricians, plumbers, construction workers, telephone repairmen and even bricklayers.
Charlie, who holds one of the most politically charged positions in the state, remembers fondly his days as a student at East Paterson Memorial High School. His hometown of East Paterson, now called Elmwood Park, was an amazing place to grow up, says Charlie, because it was a family town where everybody knew everybody, you bought your meat at the local butcher shop and you played basketball or baseball with friends almost every day down on the corner or in one of the farmer's fields--a simpler time.
But at the age of 19, Charlie's real work began. On New Year's Day, Charlie was in the kitchen with his father preparing for the day's festivities when the elder Wowkanech dropped to the floor and died from a massive heart attack. "On that day, I went from being a young man to being an adult," says Charlie. "I joined my father's union, Local 68, and became trained as an operating engineer. Operating engineers maintain the heating and boiler systems in buildings. By age 21, I was the youngest member ever appointed to the local's Executive Board in its more than 100-year history. Ultimately I became an organizer for the union and worked my way up to where I am today."
The trades have provided well for Charlie and his family, he says, as long as he has followed his father's strong work ethic. "My father always said, ‘Remember, the harder you work the luckier you'll get,'" explains Charlie. "I always attack every day the same way--get up early, get out and work hard. You'll be surprised what opportunities will be presented to you if that is what you believe."