by By Pablo Ros | December 13, 2013
During his State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1964, Pres. Lyndon Johnson remarked that “many Americans live on the outskirts of hope – some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both.”
He added, “Our task is to help replace this despair with opportunity,” launching America’s War on Poverty. That included passage of the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, and the Social Security Act of 1965, which created Medicare and Medicaid, and many other initiatives, including the Head Start program.
Today, these programs keep millions out of poverty and improve the lives of children and families.
But as effective as these programs are, our policies have not kept up with the changing times. That’s why today, to mark the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and to highlight today’s most pressing economic challenges, AFSCME is asking for your stories. We are looking for two kinds of stories:
1) Tell us about your frontline experiences as an AFSCME member working to help families make ends meet. For example, we want to hear how you make a difference to someone’s life in your work in Head Start, eligibility determination for food stamps and/or Medicaid, or in other safety net programs; and
2) Tell us if you and your family have been helped by safety net programs, like Medicaid, Head Start, and SNAP. Tell us about what changes are needed to these programs to better help you and your families establish a solid economic footing.
We must recommit to our goal of reducing poverty. At a time of high unemployment and rising inequality, AFSCME is calling on our elected leaders to continue moving families from poverty to prosperity. Your stories bring public policy to life.
Click here to tell us your stories.
by Helen Cox | December 12, 2013
Finally, retirement will soon be a reality for veteran Memphis sanitation workers like Cleo Smith, one of the men who went on strike in 1968, proclaiming “I Am a Man” and demanding dignity for himself and his fellow workers.
The Memphis City Council this month passed a retirement reform ordinance, paving the way for 40 men over the age of 65 to retire. They’ve been on the physically demanding job for decades. The council’s vote creates a supplemental retirement program that will allow them to retire.
“We’ve committed the majority of our working lives to making sure Memphis’ waste is taken care of,” Smith said. “We’ve suffered on the job injuries but pushed through year after year. Now, we’re finally getting the respect we deserve.”
Currently, sanitation workers are only covered by Social Security and a small contribution by the city to a savings plan. Our union agreed to longer collection routes as part of a broader restructuring of solid waste services and collection practices. A portion of the savings generated through these changes, including the “sweat equity” from the longer routes, will support this benefit.
AFSCME Local 1733 fought for this historic reform for the past several years. While the details are still being developed, the benefit will provide a worker at 65 years of age an annual benefit of $400 per year of service, capped at 30 years or $12,000.
But the vote was not all good news. The council rejected a fee of $2.25 a month that would help maintain the city’s sanitation fleet and modernize the city’s recycling program. That recycling program would provide economic benefits over time.
“This is a win for workers, but the fight’s not over,” Gail Tyree, executive director of Local 1733 said. “We now need to restore the solid waste fee of $2.25 a month, in order to keep our fleet of trucks updated and operating, which will go a long way in running an efficient operation, a small price to pay for sanitation workers to be able to retire with dignity. AFSCME certainly isn’t backing down now and we are committed to keeping up the fight.”
The restructured longer routes will fall to younger sanitation workers like Adrian Rodgers. But they finally have the promise of a more secure retirement after decades of service.
“After 30 to 50 years of working for Memphis, these men are owed a decent retirement and so are we, the younger guys,” Rodgers said. “We’re willing to work longer and harder days if it means there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that we can all retire with dignity and without fear having to choose between medicine and rent.”
by Joye Barksdale | December 09, 2013
AFSCME members have known for a long time that outsourcing public services is bad for vital services, workers and taxpayers. The group In the Public Interest has just released a report on some of the worst outsourcing deals across the country.
Eager for quick cash, state and local governments, “handed over control of critical public services and assets to corporations that promise to handle them better, faster and cheaper,” the report, Out of Control, states. “Unfortunately for taxpayers, not only has outsourcing these services failed to keep this promise, but too often it undermines transparency, accountability, shared prosperity and competition.”
A few examples:
- The Jenkinsville Water Company in South Carolina recently failed to pay state employee payroll taxes, lost millions of gallons of water and couldn’t account for tens of thousands of dollars. When journalists and concerned residents filed open records requests, the company refused to comply.
- In Truth or Consequences, N.M., (we couldn’t make that one up) a citizen who asked to review recordings of the city commission’s meetings was rebuffed by the city, which argued that because Truth or Consequences contracts with a private company to record the meetings, the video recordings were not subject to open records laws.
- Auditors of the North County Transit District in California faulted a private contractor for employing bus drivers without having them complete drug and alcohol testing, not tracking bus performance and failing to pick up disabled passengers in a timely manner.
- Los Angeles County repeatedly renewed a contract for foster care services with Wings of Refuge even though the company placed children in homes where they were subjected to serious abuse, including being beaten and locked in their rooms. The contract was canceled only after the company didn’t file required financial forms for three years.
In September, ITPI’s report on for-profit prisons detailed how a majority of private prison contracts have “lockup quotas” that guarantee them profits, forcing taxpayers to pay for empty prison beds.
by David Patterson and Pablo Ros | December 06, 2013
Greg Timmerman, a custodian at Greenhaven Elementary in Hibbing, Minn., was recently monitoring the cafeteria when he noticed something was wrong with one of the students waiting in line.
Standing by the garbage barrels as students cleaned off their trays after lunch, the AFSCME Local 480, Council 65 member spotted a first grader who appeared to be having some difficulty breathing.
“She looked like she was going to throw up,” Timmerman said. “I asked her if she was ok. She tried to speak but couldn’t so she shook her head no.”
Timmerman jumped into action, applying the Heimlich maneuver, though at first to no avail. “I got scared because the girl needed help, but I didn’t want to hurt her,” he said.
The second time it was successful. A grape lodged in the girl’s throat popped out.
This wasn’t Timmerman’s first time performing the Heimlich to save a student. Nor is Timmerman the only custodian in Hibbing who has done so.
Jim Jukich, a janitor at Washington Elementary School who is also a member of AFSCME Local 480, Council 65, has saved two children from choking.
“That’s why I’m in the cafeteria during lunch hours – in case there’s a problem,” Jukich said. “There’s lots of spills … but in case there’s emergencies – it’s good to be on hand.”
Although student choking incidents are rare, according to a recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, non-fatal occurrences are on the rise.
At the schools, students and teachers look up to Timmerman and Jukich for their quick action.
Since the latest incident, Timmerman now has a lifelong fan. “She comes up to me daily and asks if she can wipe a table, and then she tells me that I’m her hero,” he said of the student he helped. “I just need to know that she is happy and healthy.”
by Joye Barksdale and Olivia Sandbothe | December 06, 2013
Turning 40 can be a downer, especially when people protest at your party, a well-regarded newspaper airs your dirty laundry and the deep-pocketed friends you count on turn “mean girl” on you.
That’s how ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, “celebrated” its birthday this week.
ALEC is the business-backed, extremist group that promotes legislation that advances corporate interests and the super wealthy at the expense of working families. Its members are state legislators across the country who sponsor model bills that undercut voting rights and workers’ rights and push corporate tax cuts and deregulation.
This week, The Guardian revealed that many of ALEC’s corporate members pulled out of the organization because they didn’t want to be associated with the Stand Your Ground controversy. According to the article, ALEC has lost 60 of the corporations that fund its operations over the past two years, costing it a third of its projected income. The corporate funders who’ve abandoned ship include Coca-Cola, General Electric, Walmart and McDonald’s.
However, the article, based on documents obtained by the newspaper, also revealed that ALEC has created a special project – “Prodigal Son” – to lure those funders back. It’s also setting up a sister organization called the “Jeffersonian Project” to shield it from possible governmental inquiries about whether some of its activities constitute lobbying. Engaging in lobbying could endanger ALEC’s tax-exempt status.
One of the documents included a proposed agreement that ALEC board members discussed having state chairs, who are elected legislators, to sign. The agreement included this pledge: “I will act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization first.” This might surprise those who thought legislators should put the interests of voters first.
The lengthy Guardian article was only part of the fun for ALEC. This week the group is marking its anniversary with a secret policy summit in the basement of a Washington, D.C. hotel. The organization was called out by protestors who showed up en masse to counter their corporate agenda with a working-class perspective. Over 100 people demonstrated, many of them holding picket signs that read “Stop the War on Workers!”
The demonstration didn’t pull ALEC and its legislative lackeys out of hiding, but it did highlight the increasing heat that the organization is facing as a result of its greed-driven agenda. As more details emerge about the reach of corporate dollars in our state capitols, ALEC and its allies are increasingly on the defensive. It’s time to get them out of politics for good.
by Cynthia McCabe | December 05, 2013
Nelson Mandela, a peaceful champion of democracy and freedom, died Thursday at the age of 95.
“AFSCME joins the world in mourning the death of Nelson Mandela,” Pres. Lee Saunders said. “AFSCME is eternally grateful to President Mandela for the sacrifices he made in the fight for freedom.”
The world’s most-famous, political prisoner refused to let 27 years of imprisonment deter him from ending apartheid and bringing democracy to South Africa. Throughout his life he carried a message of hope, peace, equality and non-violence.
Former AFSCME Sec.-Treas. William Lucy was a founding member of the Free South Africa Movement, and AFSCME leaders including Lucy and former Pres. Gerald W. McEntee participated in demonstrations to protest apartheid at the South African Embassy. This anti-apartheid support was not forgotten. On Mandela’s first trip to the U.S. after being freed from prison, one of his few stops was the 1990 AFSCME International Convention in Miami.
“Through our support of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, we were fortunate to establish a special relationship with Mandela,” Saunders said. “Thousands of union activists at the convention in Miami were inspired by his courage, perseverance and his dedication to South Africa and its people.”
The members of AFSCME will remember Mandela as a peaceful and powerful voice for freedom.
“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived,” Mandela said at a speech in Johannesburg, South Africa. “It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
by Clyde Weiss | December 05, 2013
Tuesday’s ruling that Detroit can be pushed into bankruptcy by Gov. Rick Snyder deals a devastating blow to the retirement security of that city’s public service workers.
AFSCME immediately filed an appeal on behalf of the men and women whose pensions average $19,000 a year after careers dedicated to improving the lives of their fellow citizens.
The ruling was clearly a boon for the anti-worker governor, who slashed Detroit’s share of state revenue by $66 million from 2011 to 2012, and cut corporate taxes that have drained the city’s coffers. Back in July, at the same time he was pushing for the bankruptcy plan that now threatens modest retiree pensions, Snyder gave the go-ahead for a new hockey arena in downtown Detroit, to be paid for in part with $285 million in state tax dollars.
Nation magazine contributor John Nichols noted: “There is no question that Detroit, like many American cities, faces fiscal challenges. But instead of assuring that those challenges are met in the most humane and functional manner, the city is being steered into a wrenching process of restructuring that—by all appearances—will be based on flawed math, flawed priorities and an exceptionally flawed understanding of how democracy is supposed to work.”
The decision could further embolden right-wing lawmakers across the country who have been protecting corporate subsidies at the expense of public services.
The city’s public service workers did not put the city into bankruptcy through their retirement system. In fact, they sacrificed to keep the city solvent, accepting $160 million in annual savings from a 10 percent pay cut, health benefit reductions and a 40 percent cut in future pension benefits. A lack of revenue did the damage – revenue that disappeared as jobs vanished overseas and to other states that offered tax breaks to move.
The victims of this decision are people who worked decades in the public service. Appearing on MSNBC’s “Jansing & Co,” AFSCME President Lee Saunders declared, “Those who play by the rules every single day, who struggle every day to put bread on their tables and pay their mortgages, should not be punished for problems they did not create. They cannot restructure their debt as Wall Street banks and corporations can. It’s unfair and immoral to attack these retirees and workers.”
by David Patterson | December 04, 2013
Illinois lawmakers voted yesterday to sharply reduce the pensions of active and retired state and university employees and teachers, despite tens of thousands of phone calls and legislative office visits by union members in the final days, and hours of emotional, back-and-forth debate on the floors of the state House and Senate.
"This is no victory for Illinois, but a dark day for its citizens and public servants,” the AFSCME Council 31-led We Are One Illinois union coalition said in a statement after the votes. “Teachers, caregivers, police, and others stand to lose huge portions of their life savings because politicians chose to threaten their retirement security.”
The passage of the bill amounts to a cash grab of $100 billion taken directly from public employees who were promised these benefits by the state, and that they earned over the course of their careers in public service. The measure raises the retirement age up to five years for many state workers and scales back the size of and even skips some annual cost-of-living increases for retirees.
"A majority of legislators ignored and defied their oaths of office today,” We Are One said, referring to the passage of the bill that many believe violates the state’s constitution.
In fact, Senate President John Cullerton, whose earlier union-backed plan to curb pension spending was stymied by House Speaker Michael Madigan, said he remained concerned.
"I think the bill has serious constitutional problems,” said Cullerton. “I've made that clear from the start, but now it's in front of the court and they can decide.”
by Pablo Ros and Olivia Sandbothe | December 04, 2013
More than 10,000 people across the nation are subsisting on water to protest our broken immigration system and highlight the pressing need for comprehensive reform.
On Tuesday, a group of community leaders met on the National Mall to pledge their support to those who are fasting. Among them were Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta, and more than a dozen members of Congress, including Nacy Pelosi, John Lewis, and Steny Hoyer. In front of a field of crosses arranged to represent the more than 400 people who die crossing the border each year, movement leaders called for solidarity and action.
AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders met with the fasters yesterday, as he did last week, and pledged our union’s full support.
“We don’t have to be immigrants to share in the cause,” Saunders said. “I may not have suffered the conditions that undocumented workers face each day, but I am part of a labor movement that hopes to lift up all workers.”
Some have not eaten since Nov. 12, when the effort, called “Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship,” began on the National Mall. On Tuesday the core group of fasters ceremonially handed over their fast to a new set of activists, including Rep. Joe Kennedy, who will carry the cause through the holidays. The fasters are calling attention to the delay tactics of the House Republican leadership, and demanding that immigration reform come to the floor for a vote.
Pres. Barack Obama and Vice Pres. Joe Biden have visited the fasters in recent weeks to offer their support. Comprehensive immigration reform is currently pending consideration in Congress as HR 15. The bill has 191 co-sponsors, including three Republicans: Jeff Denham, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and David Valadao.
AFSCME has been a leader in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, rallying and lobbying Congress, driven by the conviction that all workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We will continue the fight to do right by millions of immigrant workers and their families. We encourage all our sisters and brothers who wish to join the fast to do so here.
by David Patterson | November 27, 2013
Kokomo, Ind. – Minutes after tornadoes ripped through the heart of this working-class city, AFSCME members were taking to the streets to clear the way for police and firefighters.
“We were at the office before the police called us, preparing for cleanup,” said Joe Ewing, superintendent of the Kokomo Street Dept. “We had a payloader down on Boulevard Street clearing trees out of the street so police could get by and get to people.”
While residents and business owners remained huddled inside, AFSCME members were among the first out on the streets to begin the process of recovery. The November 17 twisters destroyed 50 homes and 30 businesses and damaged 300 more but thankfully no serious injuries or deaths were reported.
“We do the best we can for the people of this city,” said Tim Wallace, an AFSCME Local 2185 member and street department employee. “I always do the best I can for my community.”
To donate to the Kokomo Disaster Relief Fund, click here
Today, some 85 AFSCME members with the city’s street, parks, traffic, central garage, housing and the sewer and maintenance departments are working up to 16-hour shifts, seven days a week to clear the debris and get the city back in order.
“I’ve heard from so many individual homeowners in these neighborhoods thanking us for working these long hours and getting the debris cleared,” Wallace said. “I clocked in at 4:59 that first Sunday until they made us stop so they could focus on getting power restored. I’ve worked every day since, 11-hour days.”
“The city of Kokomo and its residents should be proud and fortunate to have the caliber of workers these AFSCME members are,” said superintendent Ewing. “I’ve heard from residents everywhere I go who stop me and tell me how grateful they are for the wonderful job these AFSCME members have done.”
Marvin Challis, an AFSCME Local 2185 member and sewer and maintenance department employee, was working to clear debris from one of the city’s fire stations. “I feel for the people who lost everything. It’s devastating,” he said. “I’ve been a part of this community for 35 years and it hurts to see this happen. But we’ll be out here until the work is done.”
Fellow union members suffered a loss as well. UAW Local 685’s 35,000-square foot union hall fell victim to the storm’s path. The local’s president also spoke to the hard work and quick response of the city’s AFSCME members.
“From the jump, you can always count on these guys and this city,” said Rich Boruff, president of UAW Local 685. “Those AFSCME members were the first people to clear a path to our street and our union hall so we could start salvaging what we can from this building.”
Gerald Arnfield, president of Local 2185, was grateful everyone was spared.
“I’m a new church member, and they just had a sermon about being thankful,” he said. “It just hit me how lucky this town really was that it’s only property we lost.”