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Atlanta School Employees Press Mayor to Release Funds

by Omar Tewfik  |  March 27, 2015

ATLANTA – Employees of the Atlanta Public School System (APS) are taking the fight for school children directly to Atlanta’s Mayor Kasim Reed, calling him out for withholding millions of dollars owed to the school system by the city.

APS workers rallied outside police headquarters March 25th, holding “Wanted” posters with a picture of Mayor Reed and calling for the Atlanta police chief to investigate for the mayor’s theft of funds owed to APS.

“Mayor Reed is stealing from Atlanta’s children and we have had enough of it,” said Susan McCaskill, an APS bus operator and member of AFSCME Local 1644. “In cases of theft, it’s up to law enforcement to investigate. Just because Kasim Reed is the mayor doesn’t mean that he should get away with thievery. ”

The money in question is two years of delinquent annual payments from the city to APS, more than $13 million. The money is supposed to be paid to the system in exchange for APS’s portion of property tax revenue generated from a green space project called, the Beltline. In addition to Beltline money, the APS workers are also calling out the mayor to release deeds to 12 abandoned properties owned by APS that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I don’t understand why the mayor would stop funding from going to our schools,” said Khalia Roberts-Harris, an honor student and senior from Grady High School in Atlanta, who took off school to attend the rally. “We are told if we work hard we can be something when we get older, but the mayor is taking resources from our schools that will help us succeed.” 

At a rally two weeks earlier, APS workers were accompanied by local news cameras as they walked into City Hall and asked to speak with Mayor Reed. An aide told the workers that he was unavailable.

“This rally is about what is best for our kids,” said Quentin Hutchins, an APS bus operator. “They deserve a school system that is fully funded and a mayor that doesn’t bully his way into getting what he wants for the benefit of his corporate buddies.”

UW Stadium Workers Win Outsourcing Settlement

by Kevin Brown  |  March 26, 2015

The University of Washington was taught an important lesson by approximately 20 skilled trades workers who play a vital role in making the university a world-class facility. If you violate the collective bargaining agreement, undermining the importance of the skilled workers, you can expect to pay a huge price.

In 2013, heat and air conditioning specialists, plumbers, electricians and other skilled trades workers represented by AFSCME Local 1488 WFSE, blew the whistle when the UW improperly outsourced maintenance work for renovation of the landmark Husky Stadium.

In February of this year, the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) sided with workers, ordering the university to pay $45,000, divided up among the workers.

“Every time the university contracts out, it costs the taxpayers more money and I’m a taxpayer and it also costs me more money,” said Paula Lukaszek, president of Local 1488 WFSE.

The agreement settles three unfair labor practice complaints filed by the union. Key provisions include: 

  • The UW will immediately return, to bargaining unit members, any work “historically and traditionally” done by the workers related to Husky Stadium, including the Don James Center and the Stadium Clinic.
  • The UW agrees that, until Sept. 1, 2017, it will provide Local 1488 WFSE with timely copies of all work orders and contractor purchase orders for any repair or maintenance work in Husky Stadium.
  • The UW will provide the orientation, training and tools appropriate and reasonably necessary for members to resume outsourced work now coming back to them.
  • And, until Sept. 1, 2017, the union and university will use a mediation/arbitration process to resolve any disputes covered by the settlement.

Hear Local 1488 WFSE members talk about the settlement here.

Underfunding and understaffing plague public libraries

by Gregory N. Heires  |  March 26, 2015

Local 1482 member Rita Meade, the library information supervisor at Bay Ridge branch library in Brooklyn, helps out a patron.

Local 1482 member Rita Meade, the library information supervisor at Bay Ridge branch library in Brooklyn, helps out a patron.

Since 2009, front-line staffing at New York City's public libraries has plummeted by 21 percent, according to union records.

The city's three library systems are struggling to provide services after being hit with millions of dollars in budget cuts during the three-terms of former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Because of cuts to staff and funding during the Bloomberg administration, patrons often wait weeks before they receive book requests.

Schoolchildren flock to branch libraries. But after-school programs are shrinking. Many branches are now staffed by only one full-time or part-time children's Librarian.

Neighborhood libraries can't meet the demand for English language instruction for immigrants.

Libraries are the principal gateway to the Internet for people without broadband access in their home. Yet the libraries cannot provide enough training and access to computers for the city's 3 million residents who lack Internet service at home.

"We are trying to do more with less, as the saying goes," said John Hyslop, president of Queens Library Guild Local 1321. "But there is only so much you can do when you lack resources. We're facing a crisis after years of deep budget reductions and downsizing."

"Branches of Opportunity," a 2013 report by the Center for an Urban Future, documents the need for an infusion of funds into the library systems. Between 2002 and 2011, the city reduced its contributions 8 percent, from $296 million to $274 million, according to the report.

The report also notes that since 2008, the New York Public Library recorded a net loss of $28.2 million in city funding while Queens Public Library absorbed a $17.5 million loss and Brooklyn Public Library was hit with an $18.1 million reduction.

"Due to these funding reductions, all three systems have had to reduce their hours of operation to an average of five days a week, down from six days a week in 2008," the report says. "The budget cuts have also forced the libraries in New York to curtail the amount they spend on books and other materials."

"The budget cuts have devastated the libraries," said DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido.

Spending on books and other materials has dropped dramatically. According to the report, the Queens Library acquisition budget has fallen from $15 million to $5 million in recent years.

A skeleton staff

Children's Librarian Laura Bishop reads to kids at a community garden at 9th Street and Avenue C in Manhattan.

Children's Librarian Laura Bishop reads to kids at a community garden at 9th Street and Avenue C in Manhattan.

Children's Librarian Laura Bishop reads to kids at a community garden at 9th Street and Avenue C in Manhattan.

Through layoffs, attrition and hiring freezes, the libraries have eliminated hundreds of good jobs with decent benefits, at a time when the city's middle class has felt squeezed by an economic recovery that has solely benefitted New York's richest residents.

"We are so underfunded and understaffed, we can't give the public the level of service they deserve," said Eileen Muller, president of Brooklyn Library Guild Local 1482. "We have lost so many people. I don't think our membership has ever been so low."

"Those branches that do operate on Saturdays often do so with a skeleton staff," said Valentin Colon, president of New York Public Library Guild Local 1930.

When a staffer calls in sick, NYPL branches are sometimes forced to shut down the children's section for the day. On some occasions, libraries have run operations without a Librarian.

"I have people who say ˜I can't take a day off because the staff will be short,'" Colon said.

And gone are the days when you could count on finding a best seller when you go to the library. "You are put on the waiting list when you reserve a popular book, but you may be number 235 on the waiting list," Muller said.

Because of underfunding and understaffing, city libraries cannot provide enough training for patrons, according to Ron Barber, a Local 1482 executive board member.

Barber added that buildings do not have the bandwidth needed for speedy Internet service, and branches don't have enough laptops, tablets and PCs. The libraries are encouraging patrons to take out e-books, but the staff's schedules do not allow sufficient time to show patrons, especially seniors, how to access those books. Despite promoting e-lending, electronic checkouts account for only 5 percent of the circulation at NYPL and 1 percent in Queens and Brooklyn, according to the Center for an Urban Future report.

To carry out downsizing, the city's libraries have used technology, such as self-checkout machines. This has increased the workload of clericals who often do what used to be back-room work - such as preparing books and magazines for circulation - while seated at the circulation desk.

"If we had more staff, we could do more programs," said Rita Meade, the library information supervisor at the Bay Ridge branch in Brooklyn.

Parents want more story time for their children and more academically-oriented after-school programs, Meade said, but because of the staffing crunch Bay Ridge cannot accommodate their wishes or organize activities such as a teen book club.

City libraries can only meet the needs of a small number of people who wish to attend English Speakers of Other Language classes and GED courses. The Flushing branch in Queens is only able to serve 20 percent of the people on the waiting list for GED classes. This is a city where nearly 30 percent of the working people in New York City lack a high school diploma. The city also has one of the lowest GED attainment rates in the nation.

Security concerns

Security is a big concern of both the staff and the public. Recently, Queens Library agreed to Local 1321's request for a Police Officer at a branch where gangs congregated, intimidating the staff and patrons. Union leaders report that workers at the New York Public Library have been assaulted.

And in a city where homelessness has skyrocketed, "The library has become like a hotel," said Cuthbert Dickenson, president of Quasi-Public Employees Local 374, which represents blue-collar workers, including security guards, at NYPL, which serves Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. "People come in the morning and don't leave," Dickenson said. "This creates a security issue."

DC 37 and the union's four library locals are part of a coalition campaigning to secure an additional $65 million for annual operating expenses and $1.1 billion for a 10-year capital plan. City Council Majority leader Jimmy Van Bramer, who chairs the council's committee on libraries and cultural institutions, is coordinating the campaign. Also participating are the Center for an Urban Future, The Charles H. Revson Foundation and community groups.

The funding sought by the DC 37-supported library working group would improve services dramatically:

  • Hours of service: Full six-day service per week, up from five-day services with some branches open on Saturdays;
  • Circulation: New York City would become the city with the highest circulation in the world (76 million items);
  • Jobs: 736 jobs would be created, increasing the workforce of the three library systems from 3,800 to 4,536;
  • Patron visits: The expanded hours would increase annual visits (now 40 million) by 5 million by making servies available to people who are unable to use the libraries with the current hours;
  • Technology and Training: Technology training slots would be doubled to 230,000 and computer sessions would be increased by 3 million;
  • After-school Programs: Universal access to after-school resources, serving 20,000 students, up from 8,500;
  • Early Childhood Literacy Support (ages 0-5): Increased access for 301,000 more infants and toddlers, and
  • INYC: Five enrollment centers for the city's new identification card would be created.    

"Today's public library is about much more than books," Garrido said.

"The branch libraries are the heart of our neighborhoods," he said. "They offer a safe haven for children after school; a place where seniors can meet and read the newspaper; job assistance for the unemployed, and educational programs for immigrants and people seeking their GED. The city must increase its support for the libraries, which sustain our quality of life and help keep the economy humming."

This article originally appeared in DC 37’s Public Employee Press.

Everyday Heroes Come Face to Face with Their Biggest Little Fan

by David Patterson   |  March 25, 2015

Two-year-old Quincy Kroner knows a thing or two about heroes. He watches his heroes from the living room window of his Cincinnati home every Friday afternoon. That’s when AFSCME Local 250 sanitation workers Mark Davis and Eric Washington drive by in their garbage truck and collect trash from his street. 

Usually Quincy and the workers just exchange waves, but last week their friendship went viral. When Quincy’s parents got him a brand new toy garbage truck as a reward for successfully potty training, he was anxious to show off his new toy. So he and his dad stepped out to meet his heroes face to face.

But when the big moment came, Quincy was so excited he burst into tears. “He is a pretty shy guy, he generally has to warm up around strangers,” his dad, Ollie Kroner, told BuzzFeed News. “But it doesn’t take long before he wants to talk trucks!”

The photo his dad snapped of that moment and posted on Facebook quickly captured the Internet’s attention. With millions of views and likes already, Quincy and his AFSCME heroes are now an online phenomenon, even catching a mention on ABC’s Good Morning America.

“I can’t believe how popular the photo has been,” Kroner said. “I was disappointed that I didn’t catch him grinning in his big moment. But what can you do? It was a great photo in a different kind of way.”

Sometimes it takes a 2-year-old to remind us all what a hero really is. It’s not about magic capes or superpowers. It’s about hard work, dependability and doing something that makes our communities better places to live. We get it, Quincy! We think sanitation workers are a big deal too.

Rauner’s Anti-Union Scheme Boosts Illinois Local

by Pablo Ros  |  March 25, 2015

There’s a right way to respond to the vicious attacks that many public workers are facing across the nation, and an Illinois AFSCME local just reminded us how.

In February, Gov. Bruce Rauner tried to undermine the state’s public worker unions by issuing an executive order that would deprive them of the right to collect “fair share” fees for their services. This sort of right-to-work scheme has become a popular strategy to defund unions among extreme right-wing politicians, with Wisconsin being the latest state to impose it on working families.

Rauner’s executive order is illegal, and unions have filed a lawsuit to stop it. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan seems to agree.

But AFSCME Local 3649, Illinois Council 31, reminds us that such attacks need not hurt us if we stand together. Thanks to Rauner’s executive order, Local 3649 now has 100 percent full membership, something it had never seen before. When the eight to 12 fee payers it had realized how the governor was trying to divide them, they became full-paying members.

As our Illinois sisters and brothers demonstrate, when many working families are facing hardship and workers’ rights are under attack, solidarity is still our best defense.

Chicago Cabbies Seek Council Action on Rideshare

by Dave Kreisman  |  March 24, 2015

CHICAGO – Cab drivers, fed up with an unequal playing field with “rideshare” companies, took their concerns to their aldermen prior to the City Council’s first post-election meeting to let them know that more council action is necessary.

“We want to let them know that what they’ve passed, and what the state’s passed, has not gone far enough for the common cab driver,” said Rocky Armstrong, a veteran Chicago cab driver and Cab Drivers United/AFSCME Council 31 member.

Drivers spoke to aldermen about how the influx of an estimated 13,000 amateur UberX and Lyft drivers threatens public safety, and their livelihood as professional drivers.

Professional cab drivers must attend two weeks of school, hold commercial liability insurance, and pass drug tests and a physical prior to earning their public chauffeur license.

On the other hand, Uber and Lyft have been left to self-police despite numerous reported cases of sexual assault in Chicago.

“At least they should be regulated.  Let them have an exam, let them know what they are doing.  Let them have commercial insurance, and then, if they pass the exam, we can compete in the free market,” said Tesfaldet Abraham, Cab Drivers United/AFSCME Council 31 member.

Big Corporations Cash in on Federal Largesse

by Joye Barksdale  |  March 24, 2015

Big corporations talk about being engines of economic growth, but a lot of those engines are fueled with our tax dollars.

A study by Good Jobs First, “Uncle Sam’s Favorite Corporations,” details how two-thirds of the $68 billion in business grants and tax credits awarded by the federal government during the past 15 years have gone to large corporations.

“We now see that big business dominates federal subsidy spending the way it does state and local programs,” said Philip Mattera, principal author of the study.

The largest recipient of these federal grants and tax credits is a Spanish energy company called Iberdrola, with a total subsidy of $2.2 billion. The company invested heavily in U.S. power-generation plants.

Separately, the total value of loans, loan guarantees and bailout assistance awarded to banks in the wake of the financial meltdown runs “into the trillions of dollars,” according to the report. Bank of America is the biggest aggregate bailout recipient, to the tune of approximately $3.5 trillion.

Good Jobs First, a resource center that promotes corporate and government accountability, also compiled state subsidy data showing that many companies pulling in billions in federal money are striking it rich in subsidies from states and local governments.

For instance, Boeing, a top recipient of federal grants, tax credits, loans, loan guarantees and bailout assistance, received more state and local subsidy money than any other company. In 2013, Boeing got the largest tax break awarded to a single company in any state’s history: $8.7 billion, an enticement for the company to build its 777X plane in Washington state. The company told state lawmakers it would pursue other options if it didn’t receive a sweet deal from the Legislature, along with concessions from workers.

Some of the big winners in the federal-subsidy game are companies that do big business with the government as providers of goods and services. “Of the 100 largest for-profit federal contractors in FY2014,” the report says, “49 have received federal grants or allocated tax credits and 30 have received loans, loan guarantees or bailout assistance.”

In addition, federal subsidies have gone to companies that reincorporated overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes, such as Ensco, an oilfield services company that reincorporated in Britain but is based in Texas.

President Saunders on Expanding Opportunity in America's Urban Areas

March 24, 2015

AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders appeared March 23rd, at a Center for American Progress discussion about our nation's urban centers, and the ongoing challenges they face, from housing and transportation to education and workforce accessibility. Below is a sample of Pres. Lee Saunders' remarks.

"There is a tragedy going on in our urban centers across this country.

“You know about the Detroits of the world, you've heard about Atlantic City. You've heard that some of those cities are actually having a comeback. But if you look at those specific comebacks, you will see that in effect, it's just in smaller areas of that particular city. In fact, when you go outside of that area, you see a lot of poverty, a lot of joblessness, problems with public education, with the infrastructure. So we believe that we've got to have a dialogue, a conversation.

“We believe that this should be a priority not only of the federal government, but that we should coordinate our activities between the federal, state and local levels, to resolve the problem, to provide quality jobs in these urban areas. To provide employment, to provide hope for people who reside in these areas. They're playing by the rules every single day. They want to have a chance, and they want to have the opportunity to achieve that American Dream."

How to Fix State and Local Budgets (and Help the Middle Class)

by Clyde Weiss  |  March 23, 2015

States and local governments have been cutting vital public services for years because of shrinking revenue and bad policy decisions. Crumbling roads, bridges and other infrastructure, and even shrinking educational opportunities, are the unfortunate results. A new report offers a real solution to this budget dilemma.

The report, Tax Fairness: An Answer to State Budget Problems, describes a financial crisis that could have been avoided – and can be fixed – by making our tax codes fair. The writers, economist Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of Keystone Research Center, and Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, contend the tax codes of most states and municipalities allow the wealthiest taxpayers, and rich corporations, to avoid paying their fair share.

“Revenue lost because of rising inequality and regressive state tax codes has led states to impose years of unnecessary austerity – underfunding schools, cutting investments in higher education, and deferring maintenance of our aging infrastructure.” Herzenberg said in a statement. “After 30 years of a middle-class squeeze, it’s time to restore balance.” 

The problem, the report says, is that “money that used to grow the middle class increasingly flows up to the 1 percent, where it gets taxed far less. This is a key driver of the structural deficits plaguing many state governments.”

The richest taxpayers are taxed less because laws promoted by the wealthy, and corporations, place a “heavier burden on low- and middle-income families than on high-income families,” they write. In fact, the report notes, the top 1 percent of taxpayers pay only 5.4 percent of their income in taxes, while low-income families pay twice as much (10.9 percent).

In addition, the wealthiest taxpayers and corporations get more tax breaks, lower rates and loopholes that also drive down the taxes they pay. If states simply taxed the top 1 percent at the same rate they tax the middle 20 percent, states and localities would raise $88.5 billion each year, and an additional $128 billion annually just by “extending tax fairness to the top 20 percent.”

“Restoring public goods that benefit all employers and all working families is critical to reversing the corrosive rise of inequality,” said LeRoy. “The middle class won’t recover – and states won’t get their finances in order – until they fix their tax codes.”

Read their full report here. (pdf)


Fifth Anniversary of ACA Is Cause for Celebration

by Pablo Ros  |  March 23, 2015

Today, March 23, is the fifth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, a law that helped 16.4 million people obtain or keep health insurance. That’s cause for celebration.

AFSCME supported passage of the ACA from its inception and played an important role in promoting its benefits. Thanks to the ACA, lives have been saved. In addition:

  • Millions of people enrolled in new health care plans and Medicaid.
  • Insurance companies can no longer deny coverage because of preexisting conditions.
  • Children up to the age of 26 can stay on their parents’ insurance policy.
  • Millions of seniors have access to free cancer screenings and get help with their prescription drug costs.

And yet the last five years have been more controversial than celebratory. Many opponents of the ACA plotted against it, looking for ways to overturn it, from the moment President Obama signed it into law on March 23, 2010. Since then, the ACA survived attacks on multiple fronts, including more than 50 votes by the Republican-led Congress to repeal, undo or modify it.

The attacks continue. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in King v. Burwell, a case in which the federal tax credits that help millions afford health insurance are at risk. Perhaps the law’s closest brush with death came in 2012, inside the same courtroom, where by a 5-to-4 vote the justices upheld the law’s constitutionality.

As Sylvia Mathews Burwell, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, put it last month, the ACA is now “an important part of the everyday lives of millions of Americans.”

“It’s the relief we see in the eyes of millions of parents who can cover their young adult children on their own health plan,” she said. “It’s our mothers, sisters and daughters who are no longer paying more for coverage just because they’re female. It’s the people with preexisting conditions who can no longer be locked out of health insurance.”

In the years ahead, the ACA will continue to benefit millions of people. Today, we celebrate the positive change it has already brought. 

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