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A Fight We Must Win

The battle to preserve collective bargaining rights that began this winter in Wisconsin is now a nationwide fight to save America’s working middle class.

By Clyde Weiss

The battle to preserve collective bargaining rights that began this winter in Wisconsin is now a nationwide fight to save America’s working middle class

Outrage — and a resolve to defend the basic American right to have a voice in the workplace through collective bargaining — is sweeping across the nation. It is washing over lawmakers in every state, roaring with the unified voices of hundreds of thousands of public service workers, community activists and other supporters — all declaring that we will fight together to prevent the middle class from being torn apart.

This anger — expressed in marches, rallies, lobbying, phone calls, Facebook and Twitter updates, e-mail blasts and other forms of activism — was set in motion this February by a political earthquake in Madison when nearly 200,000 Wisconsin public service employees — including more than 60,000 AFSCME members — lost their right to collectively bargain over health care, retirement and working conditions. However, the implementation of the law is currently on hold pending a court review of its legality.

Days later, an aftershock hit Ohio when Gov. John Kasich (R) signed a bill eliminating the collective bargaining rights of more than 350,000 public service workers. More aftershocks rumbled across the nation as anti-worker legislation was introduced or passed in other states.

“I’m here (in Madison, Wis.) to protect my rights as a worker, to have a seat at the bargaining table, and for my kids and their kids,” he explained. “I told my children we are a movement, we are making history!”
Adam Sutter
Corrections Officer
Prairie Du Chien Correctional Institution
President, Local 903
Council 24 (Wisconsin)

The battle has energized union activists like never before, and we’re fighting back with vigor. In Wisconsin, AFSCME and other union members and supporters are working to recall senators who supported Gov. Scott Walker (R) in stripping away collective bargaining.

In Ohio, we are conducting a campaign to collect more than 230,000 valid signatures to get a measure on the November ballot that will repeal the Kasich bill ending collective bargaining for public service workers.

A similar measure to end collective bargaining passed the Iowa House, but did not receive support in the Senate. In Florida, AFSCME activists helped defeat a union-busting bill that would have prevented unions representing public service workers from using automatic payroll deduction to collect members’ dues and would have required labor organizations to get members’ individual approval before using their dues money for political purposes.

But it was in Madison — the epicenter of this political upheaval and the very place AFSCME was born 75 years ago — that the nation first became riveted on the sight of tens of thousands of Wisconsinites as they refused to be silenced. “This is what democracy looks like,” they shouted in unison as they demanded respect for workers’ rights.

Among the thousands of AFSCME members who joined the Wisconsin fight was Adam Sutter, a corrections officer in Prairie du Chien and a member of Local 903 (Council 24). “I’m here to protect my rights as a worker, to have a seat at the bargaining table, and for my kids and their kids,” he explained. “I told my children we are a movement, we are making history!”

The fight spread nationwide as more than 50,000 people across the country rallied one February day at nearly every state capitol, with just two days’ notice, to demonstrate their solidarity with the Wisconsin public service workers (See the following photo essay).

Walker and other extremist-backed lawmakers throughout the country are framing this as a fight about budgets and the economy, but the truth is that it’s all about power — the power of corporate America. Big Business interests arewaging a war against the middle class in an effort to lower wages, reduce benefits, escape tax obligations, and expand privatization and deregulation.

Their anti-worker agenda is fueled by a web of corporate-backed groups that write their talking points and even craft boiler-plate legislation. Extremist billionaires like David and Charles Koch fund many of these groups, and also fill the campaign war chests of candidates who do their bidding. For instance, Koch Industries contributed $43,000 to Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, and a Koch-run political action committee gave another $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. They, in turn, spent more than $4 million to support Walker’s bid for office.

No wonder that, during the fight over collective bargaining, Walker so eagerly took a call from a prankster claiming to be David Koch. The governor knew who buttered his bread.

Corrections officers, teachers, child care providers, highway workers, and other public service workers are fighting back, and will prevail because the public stands with us. National polls have shown that most Americans support collective bargaining.

Moreover, we have solutions that will build the middle class, not tear it down. For instance, we can end costly and unnecessary privatization of public services, close corporate tax loopholes and raise revenue when necessary to protect critical public services.

Dedicated activists nationwide are going to rallies, meeting with lawmakers and telling the truth about public service workers as part of the effort to defeat Walker’s anti-worker bill and others like it. We’re also working hard to unseat politicians who are fighting against us.

While corporate interests are spending big bucks to defeat us, we’re carrying on our grassroots campaign through social media methods like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Through our Power to Win initiative, we are also boosting our contribution to AFSCME’s PEOPLE program, which builds financial resources to participate in elections.

If we’re going to win, AFSCME members also need to tell neighbors and friends how our jobs improve our communities, why collective bargaining ensures that workers are treated with respect on the job, and how having a seat at the table builds strength for the middle class. In addition, we’re partnering with other groups and unions. Our state battleground campaigns and rapid response program are successfully challenging the untruths being spread about public employees’ wages, pensions and health care benefits.

Also, AFSCME’s State Battles Summit this June in Washington, DC, gave activists an in-depth opportunity to learn about the tactics that worked, what we could do better, and the technological tools at our disposal to overcome the challenges ahead.

Winning elections this November, and next year when the Obama Presidency is at stake, is critical to regain the ground we’ve lost. That’s why AFSCME activists are gearing up and rallying wherever lawmakers are trampling on our rights.

Addressing a massive rally this February at the Capitol in Madison, AFSCME International Pres. Gerald W. McEntee declared: “We are not going to be silent when politicians tell us that silence is the only option and that negotiations are a thing of the past.” AFSCME members have taken these words to heart. As this magazine went to press, our fight for workers’ rights continued to gather support across the nation. For the most recent updates on collective bargaining and other AFSCME news, visit afscme.org. Gonzalo Baeza and Jon Melegrito contributed