- Posted June 24, 2012 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Public Service Unions at Crossroads
Public service unions are at crossroads faced with being forced to accept more and more concessions as cash-strapped state governments seek to find ways to keep state budgets balanced.
After a stunning defeat for the union movement in the recall election in Wisconsin, union members questioned how to proceed and what the future had in store as they met in Los Angeles this past week.
As America's biggest state and local government employees' union gathered here this week, it faced obstacles like never before. After a big defeat in Wisconsin, and under pressure to accept cuts in jobs, pay, pensions and benefits, it needed to give convincing answers.
Lee Saunders, who became the union's first African American president on Friday, said the fight was "just getting started." He said the mission for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was to save nothing less than organized labor itself.
"Our success or failure will mark a turning point not only for our union but for the entire labor movement," said Saunders, the former number two who succeeded Gerald McEntee as president of the union, the largest in the AFL-CIO federation.
The union had one of its darkest days on June 5 in Wisconsin, where voters rejected a union-led effort to recall the state's governor, Republican Scott Walker, who had tried to curtail the bargaining rights of public sector employees.
But the 3,500 delegates who came to Los Angeles to mark AFSCME's 75th anniversary and elect its first new president in 31 years, left the meeting grimly determined to do more than just reverse their union's recent setbacks.
"The state is taking money that it should have paid into my retirement but didn't, and it's giving it away in tax breaks to corporations," said Steve Curran, a corrections officer from Connecticut.
Taxpayers have seen drastic cuts in public services after an economic downturn and support for public workers is waning.
The crossing guards, snow-plow operators and librarians who make up the membership of the AFSCME pushed back during their convention this week.
"We've been demonized as the people who have it all," said Roberta Lynch, deputy director of AFSCME's Council 31, which represents state workers in Illinois.
While public workers have not seen the wage declines experienced by some in the private sector, they have lost jobs dramatically over the past three years, according to the Labor Department.
The perception is "almost as if the unions are drinking champagne while others are suffering," said Harley Shaiken, a professor at University of California Berkeley. "It's just the opposite. Public sector work is remarkably insecure in this environment and tough concessions have been made."
According to AFSCME, its members have an average salary of $40,000 a year and collect a pension of about $19,000 a year in retirement. These figures are virtually impossible to compare to those of the private sector given the wide mix of skills and education.
Union leaders recognize that they need a swing in popular opinion. After the convention, members plan a steady campaign to tell their neighbors they have deep roots in their communities, provide essential services and pay taxes, too.
What is the answer for public workers?
Is there a middle ground that public service union members can find with state budget cutters?
From the Cornfield, union support is on the decline, but not because of why unions came to be - the welfare of oppressed workers, but rather for what the leadership of unions has become.
The workers, in my opinion, are not the first concern of most in union leadership. What is first and foremost for most union leaders is the old scourge of those in authority - power and money.
There needs to be more emphasis on issues that directly affect workers and less on political intervention and power-grabbing by union officials.