August 28, 2015
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Love in the Union: Rick and Rachel

The first time Rick Bartolotta and Rachel Casey met, he came off as “standoffish,” she recalls. It happened at a meeting of the steering committee of Western New York Next Up, a coalition of new and young union activists in the Buffalo area.

“I tried to talk to him but he sort of blew me off,” she says.

That’s not what Rick remembers. In fact, he says, “I was very impressed. I was actually intimidated by her more than anything.”

Rick, 37, works for the treasury department of the City of Buffalo and is an active member of AFSCME Local 650 (Council 35). Rachel, 32, an employment counselor at the Erie County Department of Social Services, is an active member of the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), Local 815.

Their first meeting in the spring of 2012 didn’t immediately lead to anything. But a couple of months later they ran into each other again. Appropriately enough for two young union activists, this time it happened at a picket line outside the Lancaster, New York, town hall where the town supervisor, Dino Fudoli, had insulted public workers by describing them as the “non-producing part of society.”

It was there at that picket line – brought together by their belief in public service and the right of workers to dignity and respect – that Rachel and Rick had their first serious conversation.

“We talked a lot about the town supervisor, Fudoli, how he was just a real jerk for the way he was talking about public-sector workers,” Rick remembers. “And we talked a little bit about our backgrounds, and Western New York Next Up. I had just gotten back from a training in DC, so she was asking me about what I’d learned in DC. I told her about how I’d toured the AFSCME headquarters and how cool it was to see the union in action.”

From then on, every one of their dates seemed to involve some union-related activity. They worked on the Labor Day parade together, putting up signs and helping to organize the parade. During the summer of 2012, they did some political organizing together, including lit drops for a candidate in Western New York.

Love in the union“They weren’t actually dates but we were getting to know each other,” Rachel says.

Their first real date was to a haunted house around Halloween. But as one season led to another, most of the time they were spending together was through union-related events. They did a CSEA Next Wave happy hour, political work through labor walks, and held long phone calls discussing different things going on in the world, things that mattered to them and they hoped to influence or change. They talked about their lives and their personal likes and dislikes. They even did some Scott Walker-bashing.

“It was really, really cool to have someone with that same passion,” Rick recalls. “It grew our relationship. The union stuff is what opened the door. That’s what we had in common.”

By the time of the Next Wave conference in June 2013, they were ready to commit to each other for life.

Today, three years after their first serious conversation, Rick and Rachel are married and have a two-and-a-half month old son, Aiden.

“He’s already worn his AFSCME onesie,” Rachel says. She adds, half-jokingly: “We’re still not sure whom he will be marching with first, maybe daddy…. Not really, we’re still in negotiations.”

On a more serious note, Rick and Rachel worry about the world in which Aiden will grow up.

“We’re being attacked right now not only as middle class but as public workers and union members, too,” Rachel says. “There’s so much bad stuff going on, and you need to be part of the solution, not the problem. Right-to-work could happen here too, so we need to fight like hell for what we already have, especially now that we have a kid. We deserve to have these things. We work hard.”

“We don’t want a world run by the Koch brothers,” Rick adds. “We don’t want that for our son. The only way is to keep fighting. Even before we became parents our perspective was on the right track, but it’s reached a whole new level since he was born.”

Did you find love in your (labor) union? If so, we’d like to hear your story. Contact Pablo Ros at



AFSCME Wisconsin Wins Raise for Milwaukee County Workers

A majority of Milwaukee County employees now have a 1.5 percent cost-of-living wage, thanks to the persistence of Wisconsin AFSCME Council 32

It took months of one-on-one with county supervisors, but the efforts succeeded when the County Board voted overwhelmingly for the increase in July. They actually had to vote twice, the second time overriding a veto from County Exec. Chris Abele. 

Then it took a flood of phone calls from AFSCME members and a legal opinion to spur the executive into finally factoring in the new wage rate.  But now the raise is on its way to county workers, retroactive to June 21.

AFSCME Council 32 members demonstrated they deserved a raise, after seeing their standard of living erode through years of wage freezes and increases in benefit co-pays. Fourteen supervisors accepted their arguments that the county’s economic vitality depends on investing in quality public services and the workers who provide those services. 

“We appreciate all the county supervisors who stood with us,” said Paul Spink, AFSCME Council 32 president. “Their leadership stands in stark contrast to a county executive who only wants to starve vital services that citizens depend on every day.”


City Concessions Allow Employees to Avert Strike

TROUTDALE, Ore. – Members of AFSCME Local 3132 (Council 75), who voted overwhelmingly to strike for better health care benefits, were still on the job after city negotiators conceded workers’ demand for quality health care, a 9 percent pay raise over three years, increased paid leave and much more.

“We stood together for nine months and fought off numerous attacks to our contract,” said Timothy Shoop, Local 3132 president. “It’s sad that it’s become our responsibility as city workers to protect good jobs in Troutdale, but that’s what we did. The city leadership has shirked that duty and abandoned common sense in these negotiations. We stand proud to hold the line for our community, our fellow workers and our families.”

Members of Local 3132 began to prepare for the possibility of a strike earlier this year through vigorous AFSCME Strong training. As negotiations turned for the worse, with management proposing large cuts to health insurance for the third bargaining cycle in a row, AFSCME leaders educated workers about what’s at stake, also signing up new members.

With support from the community and allies in the surrounding areas, local leadership organized rallies, worksite visits and other actions to show the strength of the workers. During a City Council meeting, members were joined by community allies, waving signs and sharing public comments in support of a fair contract.

There was no surprise when a strike vote was called and more than 95 percent of workers voted in favor of a strike, which would have been their first ever.

“Workers agreed to concessions in 2009 and 2012 to help the city when the economy took a turn for the worse,” added Shoop. “Now, at a time when the city budget has reserves of $1.2 million and Troutdale’s economy is strong, workers are holding the line for quality health care for their families and good jobs for their community.”

A ratification vote is scheduled for the first week in September.

Ten Years after Katrina, Solidarity Overshadows Tragedy

It was one o’clock in the morning, and the staff of Central Louisiana State Hospital had a major emergency on their hands. A week after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, patients and staff from Charity Hospital in New Orleans were arriving at the Pineville hospital by the busloads, seeking refuge and assistance.

“They were psychiatric patients,” remembers Candice Cheney, a psychiatric supervisor at Central Louisiana State Hospital who retired last year. “They as well as their staff were traumatized because they had been locked in the basement of Charity Hospital for a week. They’d hardly eaten anything in all that time. The patients were hostile and afraid. It was total chaos. Our staff received them and assisted them. We worked all night long.”

Cheney was then president of AFSCME Local 3074 (Council 17), which represented the Central Louisiana State Hospital employees. She knew that the staff from Charity Hospital who had remained with their patients and saw them to safety in Pineville, 200 miles away, were also traumatized and separated from their families. Once their basic needs were met, she went around asking them if they were union members. Turned out they were from the same family, AFSCME.

“I told them I was the local president and started assisting them personally,” Cheney remembers. “I contacted my council president and told him we had to take care of our members. That’s when the relief effort started.”

Public workers were essential in preventive measures before Hurricane Katrina, as well as the relief and recovery efforts that followed. Michael Mitchell, a ferry boat captain, transported nearly 1,000 people seeking refuge across the Mississippi River. He worked for seven hours and made 30 trips before his ferry was shut down.

Alfretta Bush, a custodial worker and member of AFSCME Local 1991, remained at Charity Hospital during the storm. “I was scared but I also knew I had to do a job – to help save lives,” she said then. And AFSCME members from across the nation came to the rescue, including a crew of 35 Portland (Oregon) Water Bureau workers who helped rebuild New Orleans’ water system.

Ten years after the storm, we can still say about our AFSCME sisters and brothers: They rose to the challenge.

And we stood by each other. AFSCME developed a comprehensive relief effort to help 3,000-plus members in Louisiana, more than 800 of whom worked in New Orleans. These efforts included:

  • Placing $100,000 for Katrina relief into an established fund
  • Soliciting donations from members across the nation to help feed and clothe hurricane victims
  • Deploying a team of union staff to provide support on the ground
  • Starting an “adopt a family” program by which our members could house or fund housing for an AFSCME family
  • Helping AFSCME members find jobs and providing them other basic necessities.

Cheney, the retired psychiatric supervisor, was part of these efforts, which went on for months. She remembers feeling proud of her union, especially when she handed out relief checks to her sisters and brothers.

“It was around December 23rd that AFSCME International brought down those checks,” she recalls. “And when I handed out those checks to our members they started crying, they were so grateful. And I was crying with them.

“I let them know that AFSCME was there for them, we were here, and I said I would not stop until I went around to every relief center in my area and until I found every member I possibly could to let them know that our union was there for them. It made me feel fantastic.”

Florida Organizing Committee Focusing on Growth, Activism

In a move designed to better represent a diverse membership, and to position the union for future growth, AFSCME Florida 979 Organizing Committee was launched, assuming Council 79’s jurisdiction.

Council 79’s executive board, which is comprised of union members and leaders from across the state, voted to make the change so that AFSCME can better focus on the challenges of tomorrow.   

“The fact is that because we are state, county and municipal employees, as well as school employees and private-sector workers, you can find AFSCME members serving our communities in every county and almost every town every day,” said Marcellous Stringer, a Miami-Dade County sanitation services member with AFSCME Local 3292.

It is a change that already can be seen and felt across the state. AFSCME Florida recently launched 10 new organizing drives, pushed back against outsourcing and other attacks on members, and rolled out its website at The website is accompanied by an expanded internal and external communications efforts along with new Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“With additional staff, resources and a clear mandate from our members, AFSCME Florida is built for growth,” said AFSCME Florida Exec. Dir. Andy Madtes. “This new organizing committee and its members will fight back effectively when challenges arise while keeping our focus on the bold and determined action necessary to improve the lives of our members and all working people.”

The change also will be felt in legislative chambers big and small across the state, and even nationally as members unify and mobilize.

“We are doubling down on our efforts this year and throughout 2016 to ensure working families have a clear, loud and respected voice at the bargaining table, at the ballot box and in the legislative chamber,” said Glenn Holcomb, a juvenile probation officer with the state of Florida and a member of Local 3041, covering Palm Beach and Broward Counties.

“Growth means more members standing together on behalf of our families, neighbors and coworkers and that won’t stop when the workday ends,” he said.

District 1199C Training Fund Gets ‘Game Changing’ Federal Grant

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a five-year award for $474,500 a year to the District 1199C Training and Upgrading Fund, serving members of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (NUHHCE) District 1199C/AFSCME and the community.

Described as a “game changer” by the union, the grant will enable the Training Fund and its community partners to create an innovative health care career and technical education program at Roxborough High School, called the “New Faces” Health Professions Diversity Pipeline Program, for project-based learning in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM).

The “New Faces” program will be a comprehensive community-school partnership led by the 1199C Training Fund, the School District of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Academies, Inc., Drexel University and other partners. It is intended to instill in all students, whatever their background, confidence in their ability to succeed in STEAM-related post-secondary studies and health care, human services, behavioral health and biotechnology careers. 

“With this investment, the HHS Office of Minority Health is enabling us to not only transform the learning culture at Roxborough High School, but also to develop and disseminate a model that other cities and school districts across the country can replicate,” said Cheryl Feldman, executive director of the Training Fund. “New Faces will help us and our partners take the Career Academy model and the School District’s Career and Technical Education programming to the next level, and we’re excited to get started.”

The District 1199C Training and Upgrading Fund, a labor-management health care workforce development partnership between the National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Employees and 50 contributing employers, has offered academic, career exposure and job training opportunities to youth and adults in the Philadelphia area since 1974.

“The Fund’s mission is providing access to career pathways in health care and human services for workers and jobseekers through education, training and work-based learning,” said Henry Nicholas, NUHHCE 1199C president and also AFSCME International vice president. “This new grant is groundbreaking and will change countless lives.”

Indiana School Policies Blamed for Teacher Shortage

After more than five years of teacher bashing, stagnant pay and legislation that reduced their rights at work, Indiana has seen the number of first-time teacher licenses drop by 63 percent.

The Indiana Department of Education reports the state issued 16,578 licenses to first-time teachers, including teachers with licenses in multiple subject areas, in the 2009-2010 school year. That number dropped to 6,174 for the 2013-2014 school year.

“The pool of applicants is definitely dried up,” said Johnny Budd, superintendent of Decatur County schools. “It has become a real struggle.” Retired teachers are even being recruited to fill the gap.

New laws passed by a Republican-controlled Statehouse and Senate and signed by Republican governors have targeted teachers unions and other public workers unions directly.

In 2011, the Legislature placed strict limits on what issues were subject to negotiations with unions. It stripped unions of the power to negotiate most work conditions, including limits on class sizes and the number of after school meetings that teachers could be required to attend.

For AFSCME members working in public school systems as bus drivers, monitors and other support positions, millions of tax dollars that in the past went directly to support public schools now are diverted to charter schools. Those cuts hurt services and maintenance in public schools, and cost jobs.

“We’ve seen dedicated and longtime workers who took pride in caring for our schools cut out of the budget, which makes our children more vulnerable and our schools less safe,” said Steve Quick, president of Local 725 in Indianapolis and also an AFSCME International vice president. “These anti-union laws are denying our children good teachers and these anti-public school budgets are costing taxpayers safe, clean schools for their kids.”

Lawmakers also approved a new statewide teacher evaluation system in 2011, making it easier to fire teachers or block their pay raises. The Legislature also expanded charter schools every session and required tough new annual evaluations for teachers.

Not surprisingly, universities have seen enrollments drop in education degree programs. Ball State University’s elementary and kindergarten teacher-preparation programs has fallen 45 percent in the last decade. The College of Education at Indiana State University saw enrollment fall 7 percent, and the number of students completing an education degree dropped 13 percent.

Public schools across the state lost millions when the General Assembly changed the school funding formula. The new budget shifts money from poor, shrinking urban and rural districts to growing, wealthier suburban schools. In turn, many veteran teachers decided to retire.

AFSCME Members Establish Innovative Youth Court

AUSTIN, Texas – AFSCME members are behind an innovative initiative here to keep youth out of the Texas court system and out of jail. 

For more than a decade, AFSCME Local 1624 Pres. Judy Cortez and Austin Municipal Court Judge John Vasquez, an AFSCME member since 1996, have been working in their free time to establish a mobile problem-solving youth court, or Youth Diversion Program, which works to reform juvenile behavior using a community-based approach rather than punishing children who commit low-level misdemeanors at school or in the community.

“This is 10 years of AFSCME-driven work,” said Cortez, an employee of the Travis County Health and Human Services and Veterans Service Department. It involves working closely with school administrators, elected officials, social service organizations and members of the community.

“Our model primarily focuses on middle-school kids and provides solutions that help, not just punish kids who face misdemeanor charges,” she said. 

In Texas, low level misdemeanors (also called Class C Misdemeanors) include offenses such as theft of property valued at less than $50, disorderly conduct and truancy. They are punishable with fines up to $500. But when children and their parents or guardians fail to pay, they are often slapped with heavier fines they simply can’t afford. The legal repercussions can stay with youngsters for their entire lives, interfering with job opportunities well after graduation.

Cortez, also a past member of the City of Austin Human Rights Commission, points out that this spiral to the bottom can begin when children receive initial citations due to no fault of their own. “Imagine you have to miss school because you’re the only one who can take care of a sick family member because the parent has to go to work, and then you’re faced with fines and penalties,” she said.

Cortez enlisted the help of a fellow AFSCME member, Judge Leonard Saenz, who served as a truancy judge in Austin. Local 1624 has members in every department throughout the City of Austin and Travis County. 

Now in its early stages, the youth court is staffed by two juvenile case managers and a traveling judge who works directly onsite with Austin school administrators and a Neighborhood Conference Committee comprised of invested volunteers from the local community. When a child is caught missing school, possessing drug paraphernalia or violating a curfew, for example, case workers recommend sending the juvenile to a substance abuse class, afterschool tutoring or sports participation for esteem and team building.

If those recourses do not work, the judge may refer the student to the Neighborhood Conference Committee to draw up a binding contract to address the student’s behavior. “The committee and the court are really about solving problems, community engagement and accountability in the success of our youth,” said Cortez.


Federal Cuts Blamed for Layoffs

The Connecticut Department of Labor announced the layoff of 95 front-line employees, including 85 members of AFSCME Council 4 bargaining units, blaming a reduction in federal funds over the next two years for the pink slips. Union officials predicted the layoffs would result in a dysfunctional state labor department.

“If the state of Connecticut wants a Connecticut Department of Labor, they won’t have it after these layoffs,” said Sal Luciano, AFSCME Council 4 executive director, also an AFSCME International vice president. Currently, it takes an individual as long as three hours to file an initial unemployment claim over the phone. A reduction in force will only result in longer wait times, Luciano said.

The cuts also mean that six of the 11 American Jobs Centers statewide would close on Oct. 1, causing longer waits and more hardship for people looking for work. Additionally, with fewer people hearing unemployment appeals, employers and employees would have to wait much longer than the current 6 to 8 weeks to have their cases heard.

The Meriden and New Britain job centers are among the centers slated to be closed. “New Britain has the fourth highest unemployment rate in the state,” Caroline Raynis, Local 269 chief union steward for the affected area, told “Ironically, the department will soon be offering their co-workers the very same services they offer the public.”

AFSCME Council 4 and affected Locals are not taking lightly these layoffs and the impact to the community. They have launched an aggressive online campaign and are planning local protests at offices slated for closure to make sure lawmakers and Gov. Daniel P. Malloy understand the severity of the situation.

The collective bargaining agreement requires the department to provide six weeks’ notice, meaning the layoffs would not go into effect until Oct. 1.  

Members at Bankrupt Nonprofit Get $2.5 Million

NEW YORK – When news broke in March of the bankruptcy of New York City’s largest nonprofit, the Federation of Employment and Guidance Services (FEGS), the future of 1,400 employees represented by AFSCME Local 215 (DC 1707) was at the mercy of the bankruptcy court.  And despite assurances from FEGS to the court that it would pay employees $2.5 million in accrued vacation pay quickly, it took concerted action by AFSCME members to make it happen.

“Dozens of workers wrote directly to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of New York informing the judge that they had not received their checks,” said Lorraine Guest, Local 215 and also DC 1707 president. “Their complaints were heard and the $2.5 million in accrued vacation is in the mail. We are still working to find new jobs for these dedicated women and men who provide vital services to New York City’s neediest.”

Victoria Mitchell, DC 1707 executive director and also an AFSCME International vice president, vowed the fight is not over. “The employer still owes an additional $2.5 million in severance pay,” she said. “We will not rest until our members receive every dime the employer is contractually obligated to pay.” 

Not only were the 1,400 employees affected by the closure of FEGS, but city and state agencies also had to scramble to find agencies to provide the important services the agency once provided. FEGS was an 80-year old social service agency with state and city contracts annually serving more than 100,000 disadvantaged New Yorkers.  It had an annual budget in excess of $250 million.

Investigations of FEGS were launched by various law enforcement and government agencies of its financial affairs seeking to understand the reason it went under.  

Back-to-School Time Is AFSCME Time

The smell of fresh coffee mixed with freshly painted hallways. The sound of classroom bells being tested reverberated along with the sound of the band getting another practice session in. Everywhere you looked this week at Hialeah Gardens Senior High School, it was clear that summer is ending and another school year is upon us.

For the members of AFSCME Local 1184, that means this week was the best opportunity to talk with their co-workers about why they should join the union.

The high school was just one of the many locations where tables full of AFSCME literature, buttons and t-shirts, along with membership cards, PEOPLE forms and smiling faces could be seen as local leaders went to various orientation and training held before the first day of classes.

This year there’s a lot at stake for the food service workers, custodial service technicians, transportation staff and all the other women and men who help keep Miami-Dade County Schools a great place to learn.

“This is a year of change in our union and that includes here in Local 1184,” said Vicki Hall, the newly elected president and an employee in the transportation department. “With this being a contract year we really need all of our co-workers to stand with us so we can fight for paychecks that feed our families.”

Other critical issues in the upcoming negotiations include meeting the district’s custodial and transportation needs while protecting members’ jobs by blocking all attempts to convert full-time positions to part-time ones or outsourcing them altogether, Hall said.

With more than 350,000 students spread across more than 400 campuses in the fourth largest school district in the nation, these back-to-school sessions are critical for the union to show the value of uniting for prospective members.

“I believe in results and I’ve been seeing how this union has been working with us and that means it is something worth being a part of,” said Pete Perilus, a food and nutrition worker as he signed his membership card.

While the nearly 40 new members and PEOPLE participants who signed up during the back-to-school blitz are important, the connections made through one-on-one conversations, new leaders identified and the message sent that members are ready for contract negotiations are invaluable and will pay dividends for months to come.

“This is how we win: day by day, one by one, showing that we are here, we are listening and this team is ready to go,” said Terry Haynes, a custodial services member and senior vice president for Local 1184. 

Gallup Poll: ‘Americans Want Unions’

Six out of every 10 Americans now supports labor unions – a phenomenal five-point jump over the previous year. That’s the latest from a Gallup poll released this week showing that during the past year, Americans’ approval of unions skyrocketed to its highest point in seven years.

Americans are seeing the connection between unions and balancing the economy, allowing workers to come together to build a better life for their families. Overall, Gallup found that support for labor unions is now at an impressive 58 percent, a rise of 5 percentage points since 2008. A Business Insider headline Tuesday put it simply: ‘Americans want unions.’

That swelling support is spurred by unions like ours doubling down on their organizing efforts, having one-on-one conversations with working people across the country about the value of a union. Our union’s AFSCME Strong campaign thus far has organized more than 185,000 new members in the past year.

Even employees at non-traditional workplaces are getting in on the action, seeing how unions bring a voice on the job, improve incomes, and help achieve real work-life balance, making it possible to say, take a day off if a child falls ill. In recent months, the staffs at digital media sites like Gawker and Slate voted to unionize.

That the staffs at those two unions tend to be younger and supportive of unions follows suit with Gallup’s findings. According to the poll, those ages 18-34 are most supportive of labor unions. A whopping 66 percent of this group views labor unions favorably.

It’s a trend demonstrated in other recent polling, such as a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Support for labor unions grew among various groups in recent years, including millennials who are politically conservative, and women, whose approval of labor unions is 63 percent – spurred in part by the understanding that collective bargaining is the best way to close the gender pay gap.

Gallup has taken the nation’s pulse and their conclusion is that a “solid majority approve of unions, and most would like to see unions’ power strengthened, or at least maintained.”

Learn more about how a strong labor movement can improve the middle class and how the momentum in favor of strong unions is catching the public eye.

Women Still Fighting for Voting Rights

It is hard to believe that – on the 95th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave women the vote – women are still fighting for the right to cast their ballots unhindered by restrictive voter ID laws.

The Suffragist movement, which began in the mid-19th century, culminated in victory with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on Aug. 19, 1920. Yet women, African Americans and other minority groups still face unnecessary hurdles to the voting booth.

As the National Organization for Women (NOW) reported last year, “Voter ID laws have a disproportionately negative effect on women. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, one third of all women have citizenship documents that do not identically match their current names primarily because of name changes at marriage. Roughly 90 percent of women who marry adopt their husband’s last name. That means that roughly 90 percent of married female voters have a different name on their ID than the one on their birth certificate. An estimated 34 percent of women could be turned away from the polls unless they have precisely the right documents.”

For women of color, voter ID laws are particularly onerous. “For women in the low-wage workforce — approximately two-thirds of whom are women of color — the time and cost of acquiring a photo ID are real barriers,” reports

It is sad to consider that today – 50 years after President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act that was designed to end racial discrimination at the voting booth – we are still fighting right-wing efforts to roll back that law, making it harder for women and other groups to exercise their Constitutional right to vote. The solution is to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015.

It is about time to eliminate all barriers that make it more difficult for women – and anyone else – to vote when there is no credible evidence that such restrictions are needed. Learn more from the League of Women Voters about how voter ID laws continue to impact women.

For more on the 19th Amendment, click here

President Obama Calls for Voting Rights Renewal

In a personal letter-to-the-editor, President Obama made a powerful appeal for the nation to reaffirm commitment to the Voting Rights Act, which is under coordinated attack in states across the nation since a narrow Supreme Court decision that allows laws restricting voting.

“Our state leaders and legislatures must make it easier — not harder — for more Americans to have their voices heard,” the President wrote in the Aug. 12 issue of The New York Times Magazine. He was responding to a report by Jim Rutenberg chronicling “a concentrated effort to undermine this historic law and turn back the clock on its progress.”

The 5-4 decision in Shelby v. Holder, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, argued that the nation has made substantial progress in voting rights, and that states no longer must gain federal approval in changing voting laws. As a result, many states have passed laws that make it more difficult to vote – particularly for minority citizens.

 “These efforts are not a sign that we have moved past the shameful history that led to the Voting Rights Act,” Obama wrote. “Too often, they are rooted in that history. They remind us that progress does not come easy, but that it must be vigorously defended and built upon for ourselves and future generations.”

The Voting Rights Act was hugely successful in encouraging and assisting black voters to register, and AFSCME has been on the frontlines of the fight to ensure minority registration and voting guaranteed by the landmark legislation passed in 1965.

In the wake of the decision by the Roberts court, AFSCME and our allies have renewed the push to pass legislation to preserve the right to vote for all Americans, and to stave off attacks on the ballot from Wisconsin to Texas and other states.

VIDEO: Coalitions Work

AFSCME Strong, the program to fortify our union, is about growing a culture of activism that connects us all. It is also about building more coalitions with groups and organizations that share our priorities, including strengthening workers’ rights and fighting for economic and social justice.

Standing Strong tells the story of how AFSCME and the entire New Mexico labor movement came together with a coalition of progressive allies to defend New Mexico’s working families against the harmful agenda of Gov. Susana Martinez and the extremists who share her ideology.

One of their biggest victories was defeating the right-to-work scam in the Legislature. That campaign, working in coalition with labor and community allies, is a model for our ongoing struggle against anti-worker forces across the United States.

Largest UC Union Fights for Equal Pay for All

Historically, unions benefit all working people — union and nonunion alike — by relentlessly fighting for better wages, health care and retirement security for everyone. This couldn’t be more apparent than AFSCME Local 3299’s most recent fight to gather support for equal pay for University of California’s subcontracted workforce.

Raising the standards of private contractors that provide services to public agencies, including UC, “is the only way to combat the exploitation these practices make possible,” said AFSCME Local 3299 President Kathryn Lybarger, also an AFSCME International vice president

A report recently released by AFSCME Local 3299 shows that as UC grows, it is relying more heavily on private contractors that pay their employees as much as 53 percent less than career UC workers doing the same jobs. The report contends the university's two-tier workforce model is "eliminating middle-class career pathways, and adding to the ranks of California's working poor."

UC has refused to supply a complete list of its contracts and contractors, but AFSCME has uncovered at least 45 contracts for custodial, grounds keeping, building maintenance, food service, parking and related services in its research. It also has discovered a statewide “request for proposal” seeking contractors to work in the UC Health system.

These private contracts employ thousands of people who do the same jobs as career UC workers. Yet they are paid only a fraction of what career UC employees earn, yet with fewer benefits and no voice on the job through a union.

One such worker is Irene Su, a recent immigrant from China who worked as a custodian at the university’s medical center in San Francisco. Employed by contractor Impec Group, she worked full time alongside career UC employees doing the same job they did with equal experience – even reporting to the same supervisor since 2012. Yet she received as little as $10.74 an hour with no benefits, far less than the UC employees.

“We do the same job for half the pay and twice the uncertainty,” Su said. “Contractors like Impec are retained for years on end by UC, and will fire us for being sick, for speaking up for better working conditions, or for questioning hazardous work assignments. By turning a blind eye to this abuse, UC is literally condemning thousands of families like mine to a life of poverty and second-class status.”

Contract workers say reliable benefits are just as important as a raise. Picking up a second job or requiring taxpayer financed public assistance to make ends meet isn’t uncommon for a contract worker.

California lawmakers introduced SB 376 as a solution. The measure would guarantee employees of private firms providing contract services to the university are paid commensurate wages as career UC employees performing the same jobs. The state Senate recently passed the bill and its now pending in the Assembly.

Here's to 80 Years of Social Security -- and at Least 80 More

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post. Lee Saunders is president of AFSCME.

Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act 80 years ago this week, but if you read what his critics were saying about it at the time, you might think it was just yesterday. It was a job killer and an attack on Big Business. In the words of Delaware Sen. Daniel Hastings, it would “end the progress of a great country.”

Of course, it didn’t. Social Security is a major source of income for most of the seniors in this country; nine out of 10 individuals older than 65 — more than 59 million Americans — receive Social Security retirement payments. It’s one of our most beloved government institutions.

Social Security has changed America in the past 80 years, but some things never change. We still have politicians charging at our essential social safety net with the same tired arguments.

Just take a look at the candidates running for President in 2016. Many propose that we raise the retirement age or privatize the program. What used to be the untouchable “third rail” of politics was open game in January when members of the newly elected House of Representatives arrived in Washington. Their first act was to vote for a rule change that could cut benefits in the future.

Why are powerful people going after such a beloved program? They’ll tell you that the system is nearly out of money, and that the problem is so deeply rooted there’s no way to fix it without reducing benefits. But that’s not true. Social Security is on track to be fully funded for the next 20 years, according to the most recent report from the agency’s trustees. And after that it will still be 75 percent funded. And we already know how to fix it.

Right now, Social Security contributions are only collected from the first $118,000 of a person’s yearly earnings. That means that while the average American contributes approximately 6.2 percent of her or his annual earnings to Social Security, the wealthiest 16 percent of Americans contribute a tiny proportion. Economists say the program would be fully funded if we could eliminate that cap and collect equal contributions from high-income workers.

Social Security is of critical importance to our nation. Before the program was established, between one-third and one-half of all senior citizens spent their last years in dire poverty. Today, seniors are the least likely of any age group to live in poverty. The AARP estimates that approximately 35 percent of all Americans aged 65 and older, or 14.5 million people, would be living in poverty if not for Social Security retirement payments.

Our goal should be to improve upon this success, not to go backwards. Poverty among seniors is still a very real problem, especially among women and people of color. Income inequality grows even wider for these groups during retirement.

The public overwhelmingly supports solutions that preserve and improve Social Security benefits. A 2014 survey by the National Academy of Social Insurance found that 83 percent of all Americans, including 71 percent of Republicans, think high-income workers ought to contribute more to Social Security. And 77 percent said they would be willing to pay more out of their own income in order to secure a good retirement.

Once upon a time, financial planners pegged Social Security as one leg of a three-legged stool comprising retirement security — along with pensions and savings. Today, with many employers eliminating real defined-benefit pensions and with few Americans saving enough for retirement, Social Security is even more important.

For politicians to continue to attack this program, instead of planning on how to expand it, is a losing proposition. Voters may send them packing toward their own retirements.

Record Rains Put Workers to the Test

INDIANAPOLIS – The challenge for AFSCME members working for Indiana cities and counties this summer was sometimes, literally, keeping their heads above water.  The state set a record for rainfall in June with an average of 9.03 inches, more than double what usually falls. July, too, brought record rainfalls to Indianapolis, breaking a 140 year-old record.

“We have what are called flap gates, and sometimes they get clogged with all kinds of debris, cattails, sticks, trash, so when we get heavy rains, the rain cannot flow,” said Sarah Miller, a maintenance operations technician for the City of Indianapolis-Marion County and a member of AFSCME Local 725. “The water got so high we had to use a vacuum to suck the debris out or grab rakes and pitch forks and dig through it ourselves,” she said.

Leslie Marks, an AFSCME Local 725 member and senior forestry technician with the City of Indianapolis-Marion County, also worked tirelessly removing huge trees, limbs and brush from city streets, alley ways and curbs.

“This flood had a major impact on our city,” she said. “There were a lot of aged trees that were uprooted and there were incredible amounts of vehicle and property damage.” One late night call her crew received was from a man who had parked his new truck in front of his house and was walking into his home when he heard a crack. “Five seconds later the tree fell on his new truck. The good news was there were no injuries.”

During one stretch in July, it rained constantly for five days. For four of those, it rained more than an inch each day. In that one week, the city received 400 tree-down complaints, 129 flooding/high water complaints and 1,140 tree debris complaints.

“I’m proud of the work our crew did. We worked hard and we cleared the streets in no time,” said Jackie Roberts, a 17-year heavy equipment operator. “Citizens across the city were very happy and appreciative when we showed up to open up their streets.”

Amid the challenges, city leaders and management lauded city workers for their hard work, long hours and dedication to their jobs.

“Our workers did an excellent job of responding,” said Steve Pruitt, assistant administrator of street operations at the Department of Public Works. “We put a plan together, worked together and executed it. They all did a great job.”


(Corporate) America’s Embarrassing Income Gap

In yet another sign that rising income inequality is unsettling our nation, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) ruled that starting in 2017 most publicly traded companies must identify and disclose how much CEOs make relative to the median salary (middle salary) of rank-and-file employees.

The ruling, also called the “CEO pay ratio disclosure” is meant to increase transparency between companies, stockholders and the public, but opponents of the ruling are claiming that exposing the vast pay discrepancy between CEOs and typical workers is an effort to “name and shame” companies with extremely high-paid CEOs.

It’s no secret that bigtime CEOs make more than their employees, but corporate advocates are loathe to show the yawning disparity – some CEO salaries are more than 2,000 times greater than the median income for the rest of the company’s workforce.

The SEC ruling will expose the wide income disparity between CEOs and their general workers to a broad national audience. That is potentially embarrassing for companies, especially at a time when many working people – some of them employees of the companies in question – can barely afford to make ends meet, let alone maintain quality of life for their families.

What we’re likely to see when companies release their figures is another shocking indicator that despite the fact that Americans are working harder and longer hours, the country’s economy is drastically out of balance, and disproportionately favors those who are already rich by extreme margins.

What we already know about the increasing pay gap between CEO pay and their employees is staggering. In the 1950s, CEOs made 20 times more on average than their employees. Today, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), elite CEOs on average make about 300 times more than the typical working person at their company.

While no one expects – or is calling for – general employees to be paid as much as CEOs, a public comparison underscoring the massive pay difference between heads of companies and their employees could ignite renewed debate about how to address the growing income inequality.

Knowing what we know about how collective bargaining levels the playing field for workers by negotiating better wages, joining a union might be a good start. “Unions provide better wages and benefits, job security and a better standard of living,” said AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders. “Unions have the ability and the track record to rebuild the American middle class and help close the yawning divide between the rich and the rest of us.”  

Cab Drivers United/AFSCME Local 2500 Makes History

CHICAGO – After decades of being treated like second-class citizens by the City of Chicago, cab drivers on Aug. 1 took the historic step of forming their own local union, the first in 30 years in Chicago.

More than 150 drivers attended Cab Drivers United/AFSCME Local 2500’s inaugural meeting, becoming dues-paying members and pledging to continue the fight for a level playing field with Transportation Network Providers (TNPs) like UberX and Lyft, continue to build power to demand the respect they deserve as ambassadors of the city, and provide residents and visitors with the safe and professional service they expect from professional cab drivers. 

“By chartering our union local with AFSCME, we’re expanding upon the strength we’ve built over the last year,” said Nnamdi Uwazie, a founding member of the union. “We have thousands of drivers signing on to stand together with one united voice, to build the power we need in order to provide permanent solutions to the struggles drivers face every day.”

Ezz Abdelmagid, a fellow cab driver and founding member of Cab Drivers United/AFSCME Local 2500 agreed. “The days where the City of Chicago feels they can treat us like we don’t matter and make decisions that affect us and our passengers without our input are over,” he said.

As it begins its membership drive, the union continues to expand its Driver Advocate Program to help drivers navigate the administrative hearing court at 400 West Superior, and to lobby the Chicago City Council to ensure that licensed professional cab drivers get a fair shake in competition with UberX, Lyft and other TNPs.

Employees Win Paid Sick Leave Lawsuit

PHOENIX, Ariz.  – Twenty years ago, hard-working city employees agreed to forego wage increases for paid sick leave benefits to help balance the city budget and increase public services. Despite this sacrifice, city officials in 2012 unlawfully changed the formula for how unused sick leave is applied to employees’ retirement payments.

But these AFSCME members would not go down without a fight. Years of strong activism and a successful lawsuit helped overturned the decision.

“A promise is a promise. Our members and retirees are excited about this win in the judicial system,” said Frank Piccioli, president of AFSCME Local 2960. “This isn’t going to make anyone rich, but it will give hardworking people the sense of security for a benefit they earned rightfully and deserve.”

Paid sick leave is a common-sense solution to a serious problem. It relieves financial burdens on families and eliminates the necessity for parents to choose between sending their sick child to school or lose pay while visiting a doctor.

Private-sector employees have felt the effects of not having paid sick leave. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, an estimated 934,133 private sector workers in Arizona cannot earn a single paid sick day to recover from illnesses, or to seek medical care. For a typical American family without paid sick days, the loss of 3.5 days to illness is equivalent to the family’s entire monthly grocery budget.

Luis Schmidt, president of AFSCME Local 2384 said: “We’re pleased that the court agreed with the union that the city has to make good on their contractual obligation.”


Union Helps Her Recover $12,800

What would you do for $12,800? How hard would you work for it? What would it mean if you had it taken away from you?

These are all questions that Deloris Wells had to answer during the last four years because her supervisor was not completing the annual evaluation form. And without a completed form she didn’t get a wage increase, year after year.

But, as this 12-year employee of Miami-Dade County said, “I knew this wasn’t right because my job involves dealing with payroll benefits so I knew there had to be something I could do.”

She just kept getting stalled, delayed and no closer to resolution. Meanwhile, life kept getting more expensive while her paycheck stayed the same. So she decided to rejoin her union, Local 199, which she had taken a break from in an attempt to make ends meet.

“As they say, penny wise and pound foolish because it was my union that could fix this with me so I said, let me make this small sacrifice so I get what I’ve worked so hard for.”

Using the strong language in her contract, which makes clear that if an employee didn’t receive an annual review within the specified time it was automatically entered as a satisfactory and they would get the step merit increase, her staff representative took her case directly to the labor-management committee and got it resolved.

“Once I brought in my union they knew I meant business and my supervisor couldn’t keep messing around with my paycheck.”

Now, Wells is taking the back pay she was awarded and using it to pay off the debt she had to take on over the previous four years.

And she has become a leader in her workplace and in her local. Her coworkers now come to her for advice, she is signing up as many new members as she can and she even attended a recent AFSCME Strong training.

“Nobody should have to go through what I did so I am working to make sure we can be stronger every day. Anybody thinking they can mess with our livelihoods quickly learns it is not going to go down like that.”

After 66 Years on the Job, No Worries

The longest-serving state employee in Maryland is about to retire, but don’t ask him about his retirement plans. After 66 years on the job as staff photographer for the State Highway Administration, Tim Hyman says he doesn’t have any.

“I’m going to play it by ear, day by day,” says Hyman, a member of AFSCME Local 631 (Council 3). “Whatever happens, happens. I learned one thing that is good for me for survival and that is, don’t worry about anything. If you have a problem, and you worry about it, you have two problems. The problem itself and the problem of worrying about it.”

It’s this kind of wit and sense of humor that endear Hyman, best known as “Mr. Tim,” to many of his coworkers in Hanover.

Wynton Johnson, Local 631 president, recalls meeting him: “I met Mr. Tim years ago at a function, and he was taking pictures. The character that he is, that’s what drew me to him.”

Hyman’s career as staff photographer began in 1949. World War II had just ended four years before. President Truman was still in office. Hillary Clinton was two years old. So, how old was Hyman in 1949 when he started working for the state?



“Twelve,” he repeats. “See now, you look surprised because what you’re doing is you’re thinking of the now system, and not compared to the way things were then. Back then, you find that most people put their age up to get jobs, to get married, to go into service, to go into bars. That was the thing back then, and the reason most people put their age up is because they needed jobs.”

Hyman was born in northeast Baltimore and now lives in Randallstown. His first job, he says, was when he was five years old.

“Down in the corner of this block where I lived was a AAA duplicating service,” he recalls. “So every day on my way going to school by myself, I would stop in there and ask the lady who owned the duplicating service: Do you want your trash emptied? Want me to sweep the floor, want me to dust? And I did it so much until she told me, ‘I’m going to give you a job.’”

At his first job, he made $3 a week.

“That was when I started working and I haven’t been out of a job since,” Hyman says. “Or been dismissed from a job, or been disciplined from a job.”

Rumor has it he’s hardly taken a day of sick leave in his career. In fact, he claims to have more than 5,500 accumulated hours of sick leave.

Throughout his career, Hyman used 30 different cameras, each time adapting to subtle and not-so-subtle changes in technology. His favorite remains the Speed Graphic, his first camera.

“The Speed Graphic and Crown Graphic I like because you could blow it up to the size of a building and not lose any details,” he says. “This was the old press camera, if you remember from the movies. You put the flash on there and the bulb pops out and then you put another bulb there. This was the camera that started the whole mess.”

As staff photographer, Hyman captured the highway infrastructure development projects that transformed the Maryland landscape in the second half of the 20th century. He took pictures of governors, presidents and celebrities. On Nov. 14, 1963, he photographed John F. Kennedy during the opening of Interstate 95, just eight days before the President was assassinated in Dallas.

Throughout his career, Hyman has been guided by his parents’ and grandmother’s example and advice.

“I have a main guiding principle that my father gave me, and he said, ‘I don’t want excuses, I don’t want reasons. I’m looking for results,’” he says.

Early on, he says, he developed a motto that lasted throughout his career: “My job title is this: Whatever it takes to get the job done.”

And that’s what he’s been doing for 66 years. With pride and dignity.

Today, Hyman doesn’t do much highway photography anymore.

“I don’t have to because most of the people who are engineers are equipped with cameras, little 35-mm cameras,” he says. “And that’s good because they can get shots on the spot of different things. And they have all these phone cameras and different things. That’s why I say I’m getting out at the right time.”

Going Gets Tough, She Gets AFSCME Strong

ST. PAUL, Minn. – AFSCME Council 5 member JoAnn Holton has been in public service for more than 33 years, spanning two different jobs, five governors, and massive shifts in her field caring for the developmentally disabled. The changes have made her more aware of the importance of her union.

Holton is employed by the state Department of Human Services as a lead worker at a group home in southern Minnesota. She has worked with the developmentally disabled in many ways over her career and has seen huge changes in both how the state deals with disabled people she cares for, and the type of clients she and her coworkers are expected to manage.

“Our jobs are changing and they’re getting tougher,” she said.

The trend has been to deinstitutionalize residential care facilities, promote group homes over large residential institutions, and assign staff to care for people in a more community-integrated way. But Minnesota and other states have been using group homes as a dumping ground for sometimes-violent psychiatric patients the state refuses to deal with through the criminal justice system.

Assaults that injure staff are common, even life threatening.  One staff member was recently held at gunpoint by a criminal patient who obtained the firearm while he was on unsupervised release. That patient is now back in jail, but will be released back into a similar situation unless the state acts. Worse yet, members are not provided with proper training to deal with patients they are now expected to manage.

This is precisely the kind of fight Holton has been taking on since she became active with AFSCME, and why she is organizing through AFSCME Strong, “If we’re going to take violent patients, then train us to take care of them,” she said. “We’re going through these changes, and you have to be involved to have a voice.”

When asked about the need for a strong union and the political power that comes with it, Holton points to AFSCME Council 5’s role electing pro-worker Gov. Mark Dayton, and then across the border to Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker has eliminated collective bargaining for public service workers.

“Do you like your wages and benefits?” she asked rhetorically, referring to the loss of bargaining power in Wisconsin.  “We’re stronger and safer when we all stand together.”

Why Doesn’t it Feel Like a Recovery?

Once again, our economy is slowly adding more jobs. About 215,000 more people were added to the job rolls in July, but it’s just not good enough to lower the unemployment rate, which is still too high.

Public-sector jobs languish. Since peaking in 2008, state and local government remain down 636,000 jobs: 497,000 as the local level and 139,000 at the state level. During the same period, women in those categories remain down 406,000 jobs.

There was also a modest two-tenths of a percent increase in hourly earnings, although the rate is well below the 3.5 percent economists associate with full employment. The numbers lend weight to the push by economist Joseph Stiglitz to create policies that lessen income inequality.

Economists said the additional jobs might embolden the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, which will make it more difficult for struggling families. The experts are talking about a recovery, but as The New York Times reported on consumer confidence, working families don’t feel like they’re out of the woods just yet.

Why is everyone so pessimistic? Well, because no matter what the job growth numbers say, it’s clear that our economy is still performing mostly to fill the coffers of corporations and rich individuals. While profits soar, most of these new jobs aren’t unionized and don’t offer employees the kinds of benefits and workplace rights that make for a good middle-class living.

Purchasing power for most Americans has been stuck since the Reagan administration, even though worker productivity has been rising steadily the whole time. We’re working harder than ever, but we’re just not getting ahead. In fact, many families are falling behind financially.

Real economic opportunity is impossible unless working people have the power to stand up for themselves and bargain for better wages and working conditions. 

AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders Statement on the Senate Fast Track Vote

AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders issued the following statement regarding the Senate’s vote to advance fast track legislation:

“It is unfortunate that the Senate sided with corporate interests over the American people by advancing legislation that will allow dangerous trade deals to be negotiated in secret. The past is prologue when it comes to American trade policy and fast track will only continue the terrible legacy of putting corporate profits ahead of American jobs, the environment, and our health care. We will now turn our focus to the deeply flawed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) and similar deals, which will open up vital public services to outsourcing. While this is a blow to working Americans, we will not give up the fight for transparency, fairness, and accountability in our country’s trade policies.”

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