Three Pillars of Union Strength: Daily Themes Focus on Politics, Power at Work and Organizing
By Clyde Weiss
AFSCME's 35th International Convention came at a pivotal time for public workers, particularly union members who find themselves targets for layoffs, reduced benefits and privatization as state and local governments struggle to balance their budgets. Meanwhile, tax cuts for the rich and anti-worker policies promoted by the Bush administration — and supported by a GOP-controlled House of Representatives — make the challenges even greater.
Thus, political activism took center stage on the first of three focused days of energetic speeches and events. Noting that 36 governorships, one-third of the U.S. Senate and the entire House of Representatives will be up for grabs this November, President McEntee pointed out that the elections provide an opportunity for working men and women to take control of their own destinies. AFSCME members, he observed, have "long understood the power of the ballot box to effect change."
International Vice Pres. Henry Nicholas, president of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (NUHHCE)/AFSCME Local 1199, told the delegates that change won't be easy. "We are AFSCME, the mighty, mighty AFSCME," he said. But "Bush is in our way."
Striving to overcome that and other obstacles on Capitol Hill are U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), and her younger sister, Linda, a congressional candidate who also is the nation's only Latina head of a central labor council. Both addressed the delegates, with Representative Sanchez imploring them to "get more organized than anybody has seen us before" as the elections draw near. "You know who will lead the way for organized labor? AFSCME! You will lead the way!"
Declared Paula Dorsey, president of Wisconsin Council 48 and one of several local AFSCME leaders who also addressed the Convention that day: "We have an opportunity, as my grandfather would say, to have an ass-kicking convention and kick [out] all of those politicians who have treated us with layoffs and wage freezes and hiring freezes and privatization."
Unity builds power
Union members know they have power, but like a muscle, it must be exercised. So the Convention turned its focus to building that muscle, not only to defend our members' jobs but also to protect the services the public depends on.
A case in point is last October's two-week strike by 19,000 AFSCME members in Minnesota. When Gov. Jesse Ventura refused to budge during contract talks, members took to the streets — even though their very patriotism was questioned — said International Vice Pres. Pete Benner, executive director of Minnesota Council 6. Their strength, he added, "gave our bargaining team the power to win a fair contract. On Oct. 14, Governor Ventura said, ‘Uncle.'"
AFSCME flexed its muscle again — this time right in the midst of our Convention — to help thousands of workers belonging to two locals of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. The workers were seeking justice from hard-nosed owners of about a dozen downtown hotels and casinos (see Exercising Political Muscle).
Several members of our union who've been fighting layoffs, facility closings and privatization shared their stories from the podium. Among them was Lori Gaston, president of Illinois Local 817 (Council 31), who works at the Dixon Correctional Center. When the legislature passed a budget that met many of the union's demands, she said, the governor used his veto power to make drastic cuts instead. "We're now fighting to save jobs and protect services and to elect a new governor this November."
For many, the day's highlight was a free-spirited speech by Erin Brockovich, widely known as the heroine of the award-winning film that bore her name.
She spoke of her efforts to prove that exposure to a toxic chemical over several decades had devastated the health of residents who lived in and around Hinkley, Calif. A lawsuit spearheaded by Brockovich led to a record $333-million damage settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric Company.
Declared Brockovich: "It is the power of people, all of us together, that can make an incredible difference."
Earlier that day, the Convention took on a somber mood as the delegates paid tribute to the victims and heroes of Sept. 11. Members of the Clark County (Nevada) Fire Fighters, together with paramedics and EMTs from New York Local 2507 (DC 37), accompanied Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, into the hall.
Schaitberger spoke of the admiration that his members have for the men and women of AFSCME — for their support "in our time of need, in our time of struggle." But in the months since Sept. 11, he said, he's grown "tired of hearing a lot of plaudits and praise" from politicians. Instead, "We need politicians to finally step up to the plate and not give us any lip service — [just] start doing what they should on behalf of our members."
Delegates watched silently — many holding back tears — as a video called "We Remember" reflected on the agony of that awful day. The names of 634 dead union members — including nine who belonged to AFSCME — slowly rolled down a giant screen. "Our city lost many, many people and suffered much destruction," said Lillian Roberts, executive director of New York's DC 37. "But our spirit stayed intact as we played critical roles in all aspects of the disaster response team."
International Vice Pres. Danny Donohue, president of New York's Civil Service Employees Association/AFSCME Local 1000, introduced taped remarks from the widow of CSEA member Marian "Marty" Hrycak, an investigator for the state Department of Taxation and Finance who died in the World Trade Center. "I am overwhelmed with gratitude for what AFSCME has done to help us deal with our personal loss and grief," she said. AFSCME's September 11 Relief Fund, set up to assist families of AFSCME victims, has collected more than $800,000 from members.
Our top priority
At the start of Thursday's program, McEntee sounded the day's theme with a single word: "Organizing. Over the last few Conventions," he continued, "we've identified organizing and growing our union as, indeed, our top priority." Without growth, he added, "we cannot increase our power to fight for working families. Since we made that decision [to allocate large sums to organizing] we've organized more than 100,000 unorganized workers."
This was a day for delegates to keep their eyes on the prize, and they celebrated AFSCME's successes while emphasizing the need to achieve even more organizing victories. Four hundred newly organized workers, joined by delegates, paraded through the aisles as Pink's "Get This Party Started" boomed through the hall.
There were also inspirational stories, including one told from the podium by John Garvaris, a hospital maintenance worker in upstate New York. Despite his employer's attempts to block workers' efforts to form a union with CSEA, he and other union supporters "turned up the heat" with rallies and other activism. They won, and "Now we're in a fight for a first contract."
Pride in unionism and this union rubbed off on a special guest, actor and social activist Martin Sheen. Removing his jacket and donning an AFSCME green organizing T-shirt that President McEntee presented to him (along with an AFSCME membership card), Sheen said, with a broad smile, "Today I am proudest of all being an honorary member of AFSCME."
Noting that the day's agenda celebrated organizing victories, Sheen pointed out that he has been a union member "all my adult life." Thus, he said, "I'm delighted to come here and celebrate with you. But there remains much to do. There is a dark and deep undercurrent of uncertainty flowing through our land, and perhaps with good reason. We are witnessing the slow unraveling of many progressive achievements by the current administration. While some among us continue to see things as they are and ask why, this union — your union — continues to dream things that never were and says, 'Why not?'"