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Under Attack, Our Union Grows Stronger

Photo Credit: Alena Kuzub
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AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Elissa McBride and four AFSCME activists on Thursday discussed best practices for growing our union while fighting attacks from anti-worker interests.

“AFSCME Strong is about building a culture of activism,” said McBride. “It’s about organizing – internally and externally. It’s about member-to-member engagement and the power each one of us can generate. What [these panelists] have in common is that all found a way to turn obstacles into opportunity.”

These examples show how AFSCME grows stronger despite setbacks like the Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. 

Tanisha Woods, a correctional officer with AFSCME Local 3920 (Texas Organizing Council), spoke about how she overcame the challenges of organizing in a state like Texas, where people in public service have virtually no bargaining rights. Yet, AFSCME members in Texas are signing up new members and standing up against paycheck deception legislation.

“We had to mobilize around an issue,” said Woods. “That issue was fighting for dues deduction. We went to Austin to talk to legislators. We went every week. We got in front of the legislators’ faces. When you hear me talk [in person] about how I want to spend my money, it really means something.”

Linda Wise, the president of AFSCME Local 1224 (Pennsylvania), Council 13, highlighted the role of new employee orientations in expanding our union. Local 1224 is using the New Employee Orientation process to ensure that when people work in public service they know they're joining a family of fighters.

“At New Employee Orientations, I share my story and talk about the union. I explain how I started at $6 an hour, no benefits, no holiday pay,” and how, through her union, she was able to demand more and achieve a better life and a voice on the job. 

“I tell people that these gains were negotiated through our union, not given to us by management. A lot of the people at my work are very young. We have to take the time to explain what the union is all about. It gets them excited about coming on board,” she said.

Wise also emphasized the importance of Member Action Teams. “MATs are an effective tool to share information about members. We have to be sure we’re having one-on-one conversations,” she said. 

AFSCME Local 3299 (California) voted for a three-day strike when the University of California dug in during contract talks. Monica de Leon spoke movingly about the hard choices that went into striking, and about the statewide blitz following the strike that helped the union grow from 9,000 members to 20,000 members in just three months.

“Workers were afraid of the financial situation,” that comes with a strike, said de Leon. “I met one worker who had been [with U.C.] for 15 years,” and who was fed up. “But she was single parent and couldn’t strike. I said I understood because I’m a single mother. We talked about the challenges of striking.”

On the first day of the U.C. strike, the woman approached de Leon during the strike.

“She was so proud of herself,” said de Leon through tears. “If she had been the only person out there, it would have been worth it. People knew that if we didn’t stand together, the university would do what they wanted.”

At Sharp Hospital, nurses like Jay O'Brien from UNAC (California) faced low pay, high turnover and staff levels that put patient-care standards at risk. They fought back with genuine solidarity.

“Management tried to demonize the nurses in the union,” said O’Brien. “But when nurses came together during negotiations, even the [nonmembers] saw how badly management was talking about nurses,” they were outraged. And they unified.

O’Brien shared several examples of how bad the situation had become at his hospital, recounting how one labor and delivery nurse read the names of some 80 nurses who had left the unit for better wages elsewhere, and another who said that in the emergency department, where seasoned nurses are essential, the standard for a seasoned veteran had fallen to a mere three years on the job.

By connecting nurse attrition to patient safety, O’Brien and his fellow nurses saw important gains.