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AFSCME Takes Fight for Workers Nationwide

A look at some of the key battles looming this year.

By Patricia Guadalupe

Just like last year, AFSCME members are standing up for collective bargaining, health benefits, secure pensions and other workers’ rights to multiple states this year. Wherever those rights are threatened by politicians more concerned about answering to their corporate backers than their constituents, a Main Street movement is rising up and saying, “Enough!”

Here’s a look at some of the key battles looming this year.

California

AFSCME members are poised for a heated battle this year as some state and local politicians try to gut the pensions and retirement security of public service workers. In San Jose and San Diego, city officials want to change the city’s charter on pension calculations and have workers who have already taken pay and benefit cuts sacrifice even more. The San Diego ballot measure would also take away pensions for all new employees and move them to less stable 401(k) plans, which will increase costs for working families, provide less security and hurt the city’s ability to attract and retain employees. Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing similar “reform” measures that target the retirement of middle-class Californians.

AFSCME is also prepared to fight for the right of the 99% to have their voices heard, pushing back against a paycheck deception initiative designed to keep unions from using dues from automatic payroll deductions for political contributions. The initiative unfairly targets working, middle-class, union members.

Minnesota

Although a government shutdown over the budget last summer left state residents without essential public services and shuttered parks and recreational areas at the height of the tourist season, AFSCME members were able to keep their jobs and collective bargaining rights. Even though Republican lawmakers pushed for a cut of more than 10,000 workers, AFSCME members were able to fight back against those who wanted to throw hard-working Minnesotans out on the street. Now AFSCME sets its sights on the state Legislature. Republicans gained control of the state Senate in 2010 for the first time since 1974, and they hold 37 seats compared to 30 for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Republicans also control the state House of Representatives, holding 72 seats compared to 62 for the DFL, which is troubling for workers’ rights.

Colorado

AFSCME is focusing attention on the state Legislature, particularly the House of Representatives led by Republican Speaker Frank McNulty, a former congressional aide who sits on the board of Coloradans for Employee Freedom. That’s an anti-union group that supports so-called right-to-work laws. AFSCME members are working to ensure that the Legislature returns to labor-friendly hands. Anti-worker legislators hold a one-vote majority in the Statehouse.

Wisconsin

AFSCME used the momentum built last spring during the massive protests against Gov. Scott Walker and his anti-union law eliminating collective bargaining to help collect an unprecedented 1 million signatures to place a recall vote against him on the state ballot. AFSCME was founded in Madison, and Wisconsin became in 1959 the first state in the nation to provide collective bargaining rights to public employees, so AFSCME members have no intention of standing by while the state’s right-wing, corporate-backed governor and legislators target workers’ rights.

AFSCME volunteers and other activists fanned out across the state, using a number of innovative strategies, to collect the recall signatures including “drive-thru” locations where supporters can sign the petition without getting out in the cold. Polls show most Wisconsinites favor a recall of Governor Walker, and a vote could occur this spring or summer.

Michigan

AFSCME is prepared to fight a law giving state-appointed “emergency managers” the power to unilaterally modify or end public workers’ collective bargaining agreements. That bill was pushed through by Gov. Rick Snyder, who late last year, authorized a state takeover of the City of Flint. It became the fifth city in Michigan taken over under the emergency management law. In Detroit, Mayor Dave Bing is asking for concessions from city workers to close a budget gap, saying that the city is next for takeover if things don’t change. He wants a 10 percent wage cut and a 10 percent hike in employee health insurance payments. Hundreds of AFSCME members collected signatures for a statewide referendum campaign to repeal the “emergency manager” measure.

Indiana

AFSCME members and supporters are fighting plans by Gov. Mitch Daniels and his allies in the state Legislature to make Indiana the first state in years to pass “right-to-work-for-less” legislation. AFSCME members rallied and made Governor Daniels reverse a decision to limit the number of visitors to the Statehouse, a restriction critics said was done to try to silence critics of the anti-worker bill.

Daniels has made right-to-work-for-less a centerpiece of his legislative agenda this year, but pro-worker legislators and even the NFL Players Association have stepped in to try and stop it.

New York

AFSCME members expect a fight with Gov. Andrew Cuomo over changes to the pension system for public sector workers. Last year he passed a property tax cap that led to numerous layoffs at the county and local level. In his State of the State address, the governor proposed a new plan raising the retirement age and prohibiting new employees from counting overtime pay in the last few years of employment toward their pension. Employees would have to wait two years longer to be vested in the plan. Cuomo demanded state agencies cut their 2012-2013 budgets by nearly 3 percent, which means more layoffs and a grave impact on the state’s already cash-strapped cities and counties. Cuomo’s austere budget plans are backed by the pro-business Committee to Save New York, which raised more than $10 million to battle unions over changes to salaries, pensions and benefits.

Florida

Gov. Rick Scott has seen his approval ratings take a dive after he implemented an anti-worker budget that eliminated 15,000 public sector jobs and made substantial cuts to education and public services, while at the same time cutting corporate taxes. But thanks to the hard work of AFSCME members and allies in the Sunshine State, the governor’s plan to convert the state pension system into one similar to a 401(k) was blocked, as were efforts to privatize state mental health facilities, 16 prisons and the Department of Juvenile Justice. In the state’s lower House, legislators could take up more anti-union proposals, including a plan backed by the conservative Foundation for Florida’s Future (chaired by former Gov. Jeb Bush) to eliminate collective bargaining for school employees.

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