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Love in the Union: Rick and Rachel

by Pablo Ros  |  August 28, 2015

Love in the Union: Rick and Rachel Rick and Rachel with their son, Aiden.

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 pros@afscme.org.

 

 

AFSCME Wisconsin Wins Raise for Milwaukee County Workers

by Clyde Weiss  |  August 28, 2015

AFSCME Wisconsin Wins Raise for Milwaukee County Workers The Milwaukee County Courthouse - Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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

by Kevin Brown  |  August 28, 2015

City Concessions Allow Employees to Avert Strike Local 3132 members celebrate their contract victory after a meeting at City Hall.

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

by Pablo Ros  |  August 27, 2015

Ten Years after Katrina, Solidarity Overshadows Tragedy “We’ll find you” - Among the AFSCME members who searched the shelters for Council 17 survivors of Hurricane Katrina were (from left): Claudia Gaines, Barbara Givens, Ina LaBorde, Omatu Barraka, Candice Cheney and Joe Bradley.

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

by Mark McCullough  |  August 25, 2015

Florida Organizing Committee Focusing on Growth, Activism “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 member Glenn Holcomb.

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 www.AFSCMEFL.org. 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

by Kevin Zapf Hanes  |  August 24, 2015

District 1199C Training Fund Gets ‘Game Changing’ Federal Grant BioTech program students at Roxborough High School, posing with staff, a teacher and principal Dana Jenkins (in sweatshirt, at right), will benefit from the federal grant administered by District 1199C Training Fund.

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

by David Patterson  |  August 24, 2015

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.

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

by Omar Tewfik  |  August 24, 2015

AFSCME Members Establish Innovative Youth Court Working to help youth get back on track are, from left, Associate Court Judge Leonard Saenz, Local 1624 Pres. Judy Cortez and Municipal Court Associate Judge John Vasquez.

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

by Kevin Zapf Hanes and Larry Dorman  |  August 21, 2015

Federal Cuts Blamed for Layoffs Elizabeth Willcox of AFSCME Local 269, second from left, talks to Willimantic townspeople about the impact of office closings and layoffs at the Department of Labor. (Photo by Larry Dorman)

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 CTNewsJunkie.com. “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

by Kevin Zapf Hanes and G.L. Tyler  |  August 21, 2015

Members at Bankrupt Nonprofit Get $2.5 Million 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.

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.  

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