Union leadership, by nature, is a concept whereby people look beyond themselves and their own wants and desires for something that is different and bigger than they are. Where selflessness and fighting for the greater good take center stage. Where lifting others up and realizing the infinite possibilities of a unified front become hallmark traits.
Not coincidentally, these are all characteristics that describe Kevin Tolbert. He is the union head at the UAW-Ford National Programs Center (NPC) in downtown Detroit. The 40-year-old has enjoyed a meteoric rise within the UAW ranks. And Tolbert’s ascension to his current post — executive director of the NPC and administrative assistant to UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles — is historic in that he is the youngest to ever hold that position. In this role, Tolbert manages an annual budget in excess of $50 million while overseeing a staff of more than 100. Together, his team administers programs to 46,000 UAW members working at Ford facilities throughout the country.
“My primary responsibility is to ensure our UAW members in the plants are getting the biggest bang for their buck from our programs,” he said. “There’s nothing more important than that.” Those programs include Health & Safety, Employee Support Services, Education, Diversity and others — each with a chief focus of ensuring UAW-represented Ford workers are fully equipped to function in the restructured, high-performing workplaces of today.
Tolbert’s ascent to leading the UAW-Ford National Programs Center is not happenstance, but rather the culmination of a life lived with a mindset of always striving for excellence and doing what’s right by others. He first joined the union in 1994 when he began working at the Dearborn Engine & Fuel Tank Plant at Ford’s Rouge Complex. His first job entailed lifting 40 pound fuel tanks and placing them onto a rack nearby. Such a physically demanding job nearly prompted the intellectually discerning Tolbert to quit. “That was some tough work,” he said with a chuckle, “but I hung in there as best I could.” Tolbert, who started kindergarten a year early, was double promoted and ultimately graduated from Cass Tech at 16, had more of an interest in displaying his brainpower than his brawn.
He became devoted to trying to figure out ways that he and his coworkers could perform their tasks more efficiently, so Tolbert became a team meeting facilitator in his area of the plant. He felt it was necessary to develop written work rules, job descriptions, job rotation schedules and other strategies in an effort to create a more productive team. His efforts were so well received that the entire plant soon adopted his idea.
Tolbert also began performing tasks for the Ford Communication Network, the in-plant video messaging system. The departure from the initial grunt work provided an outlet for Tolbert to add more to his skill set than just brute strength. “I was able to use my skills and my knowledge in a way that benefited everybody,” he said. “To be able to do that and help people at the same time was really rewarding.”
Having established himself as a person who can get things done, Tolbert was picked to help launch the Technical Training Center in the plant. Its successful unveiling caught the eye of then-UAW Regional Director Jimmy Settles. Tolbert followed that up with a strategy to help inform UAW members about the 2002 gubernatorial race in Michigan. He developed fliers, a web site and produced a video, all in an effort to ensure the membership was well educated about the candidates.
“I showed that material to Jimmy,” he said. “He told me that he was impressed and that was something he would like to do more of for our members.” Settles soon offered Tolbert a role at his Region 1A office, the largest region in the UAW. Even though it was a temporary assignment and came with no long-term guarantees, Tolbert joined the region in 2003 as an assistant in the community action program. When Settles was appointed vice president and director of the UAW Ford Department in 2006, he brought Tolbert along, making the young, fierce union advocate a UAW international representative.
Now with a more permanent position in the union, Tolbert was poised to fight for all the tenets on which the UAW was founded. “Jimmy shared with me that he didn’t want me to be a regular union rep,” Tolbert said, a married father of three sons. “He wanted me to be a throwback. To be active in the community, active in politics, and just be an overall leader. He was very adamant about that.”
Tolbert put those leadership skills to the test when in 2011, as assistant director of the UAW’s insurance department, he led labor negotiations for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Health Alliance Plan. “It was a challenge, and there were times when I wondered if I was doing the right thing, but we stuck with it and got it done.”
Once appointed to his current position in July 2013 by Vice President Settles, Tolbert continued his drive of ensuring UAW-represented Ford workers receive the service they deserve from the union’s international staff. One focus was attempting to shore up communication efforts to the members. “We launched our digital department in 2011 as a way to share with our members all the things that we’re doing. In 2013, we launched our UAW-Ford Community magazine as a tool to talk about some of the community projects our members are involved in.”
Tolbert cares about the UAW with a studious passion. His fidelity to its principles, its values and its historic relevance makes fighting on behalf of union members an easy choice. It also makes working 12-hour days par for the course. But there are no complaints from Tolbert — just a continuance of providing dedicated service to UAW members around the country with a especially strong sense of purpose.