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Private Prisons Yet Another Trump Giveaway to Corporate America

by Pablo Ros  |  February 24, 2017

Private Prisons Yet Another Trump Giveaway to Corporate America

Private prisons are a failed experiment. That’s why AFSCME applauded last year’s decision by the U.S. Justice Department to reduce and ultimately end its use of privately-operated, for-profit facilities.

The decision was based on evidence that private prisons are a bad deal for taxpayers, failing to deliver on services while jeopardizing public safety.

As then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates put it, “they simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”

But evidence-based decision making is not a thing for the Trump administration. Its Justice Department reversed course this week, announcing it will continue its use of private prisons. Not because there’s a new study out there showing the benefits of such a move, but presumably to enrich corporate America at the expense of average citizens.

“Private prisons are dangerous and overcrowded, with inexperienced staff and unsanitary conditions,” said AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders. “At all levels of government, we should be phasing them out, not propping them up.”

AFSCME, which represents 62,000 corrections officers and 23,000 corrections employees nationwide, has long condemned the outsourcing of corrections jobs to for-profit companies like CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), Management and Training Corp. and The GEO Group, Inc. These companies regularly cut corners to benefit their shareholders while endangering public safety.

The Justice Department’s reversal is yet another sign of how the Trump administration is likely to govern, with the interests of the wealthy first and foremost. And it’s a slap in the face to corrections officers who put their lives at risk every day for the benefit of their communities.

“Corrections officers working in our federal, state and local prisons have some of the most dangerous jobs imaginable,” Saunders said. “They put themselves in harm’s way to protect their communities. They deserve our respect and gratitude, because they never quit putting public service and public safety first.”

Texas Corrections Employees, Retirees Push Legislative Priorities

by Namita Waghray  |  February 24, 2017

Texas Corrections Employees, Retirees Push Legislative Priorities AFSCME Texas Corrections members from Lubbock are shown in the Texas Statehouse Gallery. (Photo by Namita Waghray)

AUSTIN, Texas – About 100 AFSCME members went to the Texas Legislature this week to press for fair pay for veteran corrections officers, push for retirees to have the chance to serve on the state retirement board and urge lawmakers to reject proposals aimed at hurting union members.

AFSCME Texas Corrections held a legislative summit on Wednesday where members learned about legislation that would affect Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) officers and other employees. Then they went to the statehouse to urge the legislature to institute a new pay classification for Correctional Officer VI, one that would create a career ladder for those with 10 years of service and provide a modest pay increase.

Officers also raised concerns about increased dependent health care costs and supported higher appropriations requests for TDCJ facilities and to keep LECOS – the state’s retirement and pension plan – fully funded.

Lanai Ramirez made the seven-hour trip from Lubbock to Austin to share her passion for her work as a TDCJ officer.

“This is my first time doing something like this and I was really nervous when we headed over to the statehouse,” Ramirez said. “When we walked in, I was shaking like a leaf. But then I heard a fellow corrections officer talk about having worked for TDCJ over 22 years. As a new employee, I look to veteran officers to help me do my job and stay safe, that is why the CO VI position is so important. I want a career ladder for myself, but we also need it so officers who have been here for such a long time feel respected, and continue working for TDCJ.”  

Robert Arnold, a corrections officer in Lubbock and a father of four, asked his representatives to lower the cost of dependent-care health insurance. He spoke about the impact on his kids when he was injured on the job and had to have steel nails put into his right shoulder as part of his recovery process.

“I was out for almost six months and though 70 percent of my medical bills were covered, the balance and my family’s healthcare was astronomical,” Arnold said. “I know they can find solutions to the rising cost of dependent health care, but it shouldn’t just be about shifting the cost from TDCJ to the officers.”

At the end of the long day, AFSCME members were tired but excited about their next steps.

Texas Retirees Cathe Wilson and Peggy Seely (with glasses) were among the members of AFSCME Texas Retiree Chapter 12 who met with state legislators and their staff this week. (Photo by Antonio Lewis)

“We worked really hard educating our elected officials. But it can’t end here,” said Local 2974 (Lubbock) President Lance Mondragon. “We have to continue talking to supportive legislators. We are coming up with plans to make regular legislative visits, phone calls, and writing letters to continue our momentum.” 

Members of AFSCME Texas Retiree Chapter 12 made the rounds of the Texas Legislature on Thursday.

They urged state lawmakers to pass a Chapter 12-backed bill that would allow retirees to run for a seat on the six-member Texas retirement systems board. Only working employees are allowed to run for the board. The proposed legislation would change that, explained Maura Powers, Chapter 12’s president.

“So what this does is it opens up one seat. All we have is the opportunity to run. It’s not a guaranteed win. We hope this passes in this session,” Powers said in a telephone interview from Austin.

A similar bill failed to advance beyond the committee stage two years ago. This time around, the proposal has bipartisan support in the Texas House and also has attracted a Senate sponsor, improving its chances of passage.

Members of both AFSCME Corrections and Retirees urged lawmakers to reject legislation filed in the Texas House and Senate that would take away the ability to pay union dues through paycheck deduction.

Contributing: Raju Chebium

In Florida, AFSCME’s Razor-Sharp Focus is on Growth

by Raju Chebium  |  February 24, 2017

In Florida, AFSCME’s Razor-Sharp Focus is on Growth Andy Madtes, executive director of AFSCME Florida. (Photo by Raju Chebium)

MIAMI – Expanding a union is hard work, especially in a “right-to-work” state like Florida, especially after a national election in which anti-union forces wrested control of the White House and Congress.

Don’t tell that to AFSCME affiliates in Florida.

Undeterred by the odds and determined to build on the recruitment successes of 2016, AFSCME affiliates in the Sunshine State are kicking off an ambitious plan to add 9,000 new members this year. They’re launching a campaign aimed at making prospective members understand the connection between their contracts and their wages, benefits and other kitchen-table issues.

“It’s our job as leaders – with labor being in the state it’s in – to go in and organize. It’s a big part of our focus right now,” said Andy Madtes, executive director of AFSCME Florida. “It’s (about) trying to make the connection between workers and their contract and what the contract affords them through collective bargaining.”

When trying to persuade non-members to join, he added, “you’ve really got to break it down for them and … (say), ‘Look, you’re making an investment in your quality of life. That contract that you have protects you from X, Y and Z and it affords you X, Y and Z.”

AFSCME represents about 110,000 public service workers in Florida. The majority of them enjoy union-negotiated wages, benefits and workplace protections but don’t pay AFSCME a dime in fees or dues.

In August 2015, AFSCME Florida had 12,000 dues-paying members. Thanks to effective and energetic recruitment drives, membership in 2016 grew to 16,000 workers at state, county and municipal governments, K-12 schools, colleges and universities and hospitals.

Florida wasn’t the only state where AFSCME grew last year. In fact, we added new members last year while other unions saw membership declines.

In addition to adding about 4,000 new members, AFSCME Florida had other noteworthy successes in 2016, such as:

  • Securing a $14 hourly starting wage for bus drivers in Miami-Dade County, up from $10 an hour.
  • Holding the line on health costs for Volusia County employees though the county had sought $4 million in concessions.
  • Strengthening collective bargaining agreements to provide wage increases across Florida.

In 2017, AFSCME Florida will focus heavily on recruiting more state workers, many of whom haven’t had raises in years and are worried about their jobs. Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature continue to pursue an ideological agenda to shrink the size of government even though that will cut services for Floridians.

AFSCME is holding a state worker town hall in Tallahassee this month and is partnering with Working America to organize state workers in the Jacksonville area.

“We’re trying to organize around issues that connect with voters,” Madtes said. “People are pissed off, scared about what the future holds. Yes, they want respect.”

Illinois State Employees Vote to Authorize Strike

by Anders Lindall  |  February 23, 2017

Illinois State Employees Vote to Authorize Strike Executive Director Roberta Lynch and members of AFSCME Council 31 speak at a news conference in Springfield, Ill.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – In the first-ever strike authorization vote in Illinois state government, 81 percent of the members of AFSCME Council 31 have voted to give their union bargaining committee the authority to call a strike.

The vote comes after Gov. Bruce Rauner broke off negotiations with the union more than a year ago and has refused to meet with the AFSCME bargaining committee ever since.

“We have come to this juncture for one reason only: The refusal of Governor Rauner to negotiate with our union,” Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch said at a news conference today.

Instead of working toward a compromise, Rauner has been seeking the power to unilaterally impose his own extreme demands. They include a 100 percent hike in employee costs for health care, which would cost the average state worker $10,000 more in out-of-pocket costs; a four-year wage freeze and an end to safeguards against irresponsible privatization.

“Bruce Rauner may think he can dictate, not negotiate, but this vote shows that AFSCME members are determined to stand up for basic fairness,” Lynch said.

Stephen Mittons, a child protective investigator in the Illinois Department of Human Services in Chicago, also spoke at the news conference.

“I voted yes to authorize a strike because my family needs health care we can afford, because my community needs public services it can rely on, and because Governor Rauner needs to come back to the bargaining table,” he said.

Steve Howerter, a counselor at Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton, also spoke up.

“We live in our communities, we care about our communities and we serve our communities. We understand the situation the state is in money-wise, because we are taxpayers too. And so we are willing to do our part, but what we’re not willing to do is give up our voice,” he said.

AFSCME International President Lee Saunders said public service workers provide valuable services to their communities not to get rich but because it’s their calling.

“All they ask in return is basic respect, in the form of fair wages and benefits to do their jobs more effectively,” Saunders said. “But Governor Rauner has shown a shameful disrespect for Illinois state workers and the communities they serve. By refusing to negotiate in good faith, he has demonstrated again that he puts his own agenda before the best interests of working families.”

AFSCME Council 31 represents some 38,000 Illinois state employees who protect kids, care for veterans and the disabled, respond to emergencies, help struggling families and much more.

The vote to authorize the union bargaining committee to call a strike does not necessarily mean there will be a strike. The committee will meet in the coming days to chart its path. Litigation could also play a role.

Lynch stressed that state workers don’t want to strike.

“We are keenly aware of the importance of the public services we provide, and we are willing to compromise,” she said. “But if Governor Rauner continues to refuse his legal obligation to bargain in good faith, he risks a strike that would shut down state government, and he alone bears responsibility for the harm a strike would cause.”

Obamacare Repeal Will Raise Your Taxes

by Clyde Weiss  |  February 22, 2017

The outlines of a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), released last week by House Speaker Paul Ryan, should scare anyone who has employer-provided health insurance. The reason: it will tax your health benefits.

The Republican plan would:

  • Drive up costs for the average family by forcing workers to pay income and payroll taxes on part of the value of their employer-provided insurance. Currently, those plans are tax-free for employees.
  • Eliminate the requirement for large employers to provide coverage to their workers.
  • Prompt many employers to drop coverage altogether.
  • Offer no replacement plan for 30 million Americans who stand to lose their insurance if the ACA is repealed.

Many of the millions of working families that receive their health care coverage through the ACA – also known as Obamacare – will be left uninsured.

The GOP plan also would eliminate subsidies that eligible families receive to purchase insurance and replace them with lesser tax credits, which won’t be enough to help people afford comprehensive coverage.

Also, ACA’s fundamental patient protections wouldn’t be replaced. Insurers would no longer be required to offer plans that limit deductibles, prohibit co-pays for preventive care or have no annual and lifetime caps on benefits.

Insurers would also be allowed to charge those aged 55 and older higher premiums than allowed under the ACA. And the GOP plan would allow women to be charged more than men.

All of this means higher costs for working people who get their coverage through their employers, and for those who by coverage on the open market. In fact, the GOP plan will encourage employers to drop the coverage they offer their employees to reduce their own taxes – and employers will no longer have to pay a penalty for doing so, as they do now. 

There’s a lot more that’s wrong about this half-baked plan that we will discuss soon – such as Ryan’s efforts to undermine Medicaid for millions of seniors, working families and people with disabilities. We’ll stay keep you informed as more details are released.

What we do know so far is not good – not for you, not for your family and not for the nation.

“The measures they propose to replace the ACA are a mix of half-measures and failed policies that will do little to provide coverage to the 30 million people who will lose their insurance if the ACA is repealed,” AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders said in a statement. “They want to pay for their plan through a tax hike on middle-class families that could potentially destroy employer-based insurance for nearly 180 million Americans.”

You can read Pres. Saunders’ full statement here.

Toll Worker Shortchanged, Wins Big Payout

by Kevin Zapf Hanes  |  February 22, 2017

Toll Worker Shortchanged, Wins Big Payout

Vera Octavio, a Delaware toll worker represented by AFSCME Local 2362 (Council 81), could not figure out why she had received a larger-than-usual paycheck last November. She had not gotten a raise as far as she knew. Nor was she informed of any bonus.

It was no mistake, and she had her union to thank for the extra money in her paycheck – an example of why being a union member is about rights as much as it is about negotiating for better wages and benefits. 

This good-news story began when Octavio returned from medical leave in 2009. Eventually, she realized that she was not being properly compensated by her employer for the hours she had worked.

She took it up with her supervisor, who explained that the Delaware Department of Transportation had failed to account for the extra pay she should’ve earned for working odd hours – a “shift differential” she should’ve received. Management had failed to account for that properly.

Refusing to settle for a portion of what she was owed, she sought help from her union, which filed a grievance with her management. That pressure led to her department agreeing to pay her retroactively to 2009. That’s why her latest paycheck was so much larger.

“All too often the ultra-right want to tell us that our unions are out of date and useless,” said Mike Begatto, Council 81 executive director. “What may seem to be a small victory for one person was a huge payout for Sister Octavio. It was her money, she worked for it, she fought for it and she won it. Without a union, she would not have had the recourse to fight to get it back.”

EXTRA! for February 22, 2017

by AFSCME Staff  |  February 22, 2017

Student Debt

Student loan debt now totals over $1.3 trillion
By Mitchell Wellman, USA Today College, February 21, 2017

Student loans are a sore subject among college students, especially with steady increases in tuition and other costs of higher education nationwide. For example, the average cost of just a single college credit is $594.46, according to a study by Student Loan Hero. And this financial strain isn’t going away anytime soon, since outstanding student loan balances amounted to a whopping $1.31 trillion as of Dec. 31, 2016, according to new data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Here are AFSCME’s resources for those struggling with student debt.

Here is information about AFSCME’s free college program. Recent blog posts about this important benefit can be found here and here

K-12 Education

Trump considers tax credit to channel public money to private schools
By Caitlin Emma, Politico, February 21, 2017

The Trump administration is considering a first-of-its-kind federal tax credit scholarship program that would channel billions of dollars to families from working-class households to enable their children to attend private schools, including religious schools. 

Supreme Court

How will Trump’s Supreme Court nominee rule on California union cases?
By Adam Ashton, Sacramento Bee, February 22, 2017

(Michelle) Raley’s case replays an argument that deadlocked the Supreme Court last year after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The lawsuit contends that mandatory union dues undermine the free speech rights of employees who object to a range of union platforms, from seniority to charter schools and political candidates.  

Labor Secretary

Organized Workers Must Be Heard In The Fight For Labor Secretary
By Doreatha Hines, Huffington Post, February 21, 2017 

(Andrew) Puzder’s defeat isn’t just a win for fast-food workers, but for all working Americans. This victory happened not in the courts, but in the streets. … We still have more to learn about Trump’s new nominee, but we’re still clear on what we need in a labor secretary: someone who will put working people over corporate profits.

In the States

DE: Opinion: Right-to-Work is wrong for Delaware
By Democratic members of the House Labor Committee, Delaware News Journal, February 21, 2017 

We believe that a strong, vibrant middle class is essential to a healthy Delaware economy. When the middle class has quality jobs with good wages and stable benefits, everyone does better. Families are better able to provide for their children and save for college. They have more disposable income to spend at local businesses, which boosts the economy. All of this means more revenue coming into the state while fewer residents rely on state services.  This is why it’s important to call out misnomers like Right-to-Work. 

CO: Unions' growth in Colorado sends mixed political message
By Joey Bunch and Mary MacCarthy, The Gazette, February 21, 2017

Unions are growing in Colorado, despite organized labor’s long, slow decline across most of the country.  That should be good news for Centennial State Democrats, who have a long alliance with unions, but last year Donald Trump blurred the lines that divide billionaires and working-class voters. 

CT: Battles over labor's wages heats up at Capitol
By Keith M. Phaneuf, Hartford Business, February 21, 2017

The clash over labor costs intensified Tuesday at the state Capitol. While one legislative panel split down the middle over whether to raise Connecticut's minimum wage, unions and their allies rallied to battle proposals that would allow communities to cut worker wages on public construction projects.

Trump’s Immigration Policies ‘Nothing Short of Mass Deportation’

by Raju Chebium  |  February 21, 2017

Trump’s Immigration Policies ‘Nothing Short of Mass Deportation’

AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders blasted President Donald Trump’s new immigration push as un-American. 

Rules announced Tuesday “amount to nothing short of mass deportation,” Saunders said in a statement.

“Instead of seriously addressing comprehensive immigration reform, this administration is throwing communities into chaos and fear,” Saunders said.

“America is made stronger by the generations of immigrants who have come here willing to work hard, play by the rules and pay their fair share — no matter where they are from,” he added. “Today’s steps threaten and undermine fundamental American values of hard work, family and community.”

Trump earlier today ordered the Department of Homeland Security to more aggressively enforce federal immigration laws and ramp up efforts to “find, arrest and deport those in the country illegally, regardless of whether they have committed serious crimes,” according to The New York Times.

Government documents show the Trump administration plans to enlist the help of local authorities to enforce federal immigration statutes, deprive immigrants of privacy rights, build new detention centers, discourage asylum seekers and eventually accelerate the number and pace of deportations, The Times reported.

Under the new guidelines, Immigration and Customs Enforcement will have beefed-up authority to deport people who’ve been living in the U.S. for up to two years, according to the Huffington Post. The Trump administration also plans to prosecute the parents of unaccompanied minors as smugglers, according to the Huffington Post.

AFSCME Stands by Public Workers in Iowa

by Pablo Ros  |  February 21, 2017

AFSCME Stands by Public Workers in Iowa

AFSCME is fighting back in Iowa against the latest attempt to silence the voices of working people and take away their ability to negotiate together for better wages and working conditions.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad last week signed a bill into law that forbids public service workers from negotiating for improvements to their benefits and working conditions. It effectively steals workers’ rights that were established more than 40 years ago.

AFSCME Iowa Council 61 represents 40,000 public service workers, including law enforcement, corrections officers, mental health workers, professional school staff and others. Many of them will be affected by the new law.

Council 61 filed a lawsuit Monday, alleging that the new law violates Article 1, Section 6 of the Iowa Constitution, which forbids lawmakers from granting any citizen “privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens.” The law exempts police officers and firefighters.

“We are basically suing over the unconstitutionality of the law,” said Iowa Council 61 Pres. Danny Homan. “We believe the law treats public employees differently.”

In a statement, AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders called the new law “a slap in the face to the hardworking women and men who provide professional public services that strengthen Iowa communities every day.”

Saunders added, “We won’t give up this fight. AFSCME will continue to stand with Iowa working families and communities.”

AFSCME Member Brightens Vets Days Despite Hurdles

by Pete Levine  |  February 21, 2017

AFSCME Member Brightens Vets Days Despite Hurdles Jimmie Rook (Family photo)

Jimmie Rook, a food service worker at the Iowa Veterans Home, hasn’t had to join a gym for the past 30 years. That’s because a typical day for Jimmie involves steering a line of food carts weighing upwards of 700 pounds through miles of tunnels beneath the campus of the veteran’s home.

If that doesn’t impress you, maybe this will: Jimmie does it all with the use of just one arm. A motorcycle accident as a teen left his right arm paralyzed, but it didn’t hamper his perseverance.

“I never gave up,” said Rook, a member of AFSCME Local 2984 (Iowa Council 61). “I wanted to work. That’s it.”

That kind of commitment led his fellow food service worker at the veterans home, Jennifer Leavy-Westphal, to nominate Rook for AFSCME’S Never Quit Service Award.

“I find him outstanding,” said Leavy-Westphal. “Every day he’s doing it all with one arm. It’s pretty impressive.”

Aside from the physical demands of the job: moving carts through the tunnels (the food service workers do get machine-aided assistance), loading them onto elevators, and even piling dishes and trays onto the carts, Jimmie brings something else to the table.

“He’s really dedicated to the veterans,” said Leavy-Westphal.

Never Quit Service Awards

For Rook, the more than 500 veterans who live in the Iowa Veterans Home are a big part of what makes his job special.

“We want them to have a happy place to live,” said Rook, who was born in Marshalltown, Iowa, but now calls State Center his home.

Many of the veterans don’t have families, so whatever Rook can do to brighten their day—whether it’s chatting with them or cracking a joke – makes a difference. Which means for the past 30 years, the residents of the Veterans Home have had a pretty special person watching out for them.

And, despite his earlier accident, Rook hasn’t shied away from motorcycles, either. He still drives a specially-outfitted Harley Davidson ’95 Heritage Softail to work every day.

That’s no surprise to Leavy-Westphal.

“He never gives up on what he can accomplish,” she said.

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