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Are You AFSCME Strong?

Through the AFSCME Strong campaign, our entire union is being transformed as we face the greatest challenge in our history. The new campaign will build on the success we’ve had during the past year, engaging activists and signing up more than 140,000 new members.
By Pablo Ros ·

THORP, Wis. — Food options in Thorp, off Highway 29, include McDonald’s, Subway and the pun-inspired Thorpedo Family Restaurant. Starbucks has yet to claim a parcel of land in this city home to 393 families, where a welcome sign proudly announces its place on the cultural map: “State Football Champs 1993-94.” Most people who pull over to eat at Thorpedo, according to its owner, are on their way to somewhere else.

That’s not true for Katy Krumm and her family. A corrections officer and AFSCME member, Krumm moved to Thorp 12 years ago from her hometown of Racine, in the state’s southeast corner, after her first son, Mason, was born. She was looking for a better place to raise a family.

“Up here it’s 20 years behind the rest of the state,” she says.

Drug violence, gangs and vandalism have yet to find Thorp on the map. And it’s possible they never will.

That’s because Thorp has done a remarkably good job of defying the test of time. Its population has yet to double since it was established as a village in 1893. People greet each other on the street and pause for conversation. They help each other out in small ways. The guy who bags your groceries at the store also carries them to your car. It’s the kind of place Krumm says, half-jokingly, she didn’t know existed outside of “The Andy Griffith Show.”

“I would never consider going back to a heavily populated area,” she adds.

Krumm and her husband, Matt Kaczmarek, live in a modest one-story house with a basement on a quiet residential street. Together, they have a blended family of four kids – Mason, 12; Jake, 9; Ayden, 6; and Piper, the princess, who just turned 1 this May. By four o’clock in the morning every day, they are up and ready to start their day. Day care opens at 5:30, giving them just enough time to make it to their posts inside Stanley Correctional Institution, where they are sergeants, by 6 o’clock.

Theirs is a dedicated life demanding careful coordination of all moving parts. Parents are off work at 2:30, children get home by 3:25, and then it’s homework and dinner before the evening’s activities and commitments, which include Boy Scouts for Mason, wrestling for Ayden and volunteer meetings for the adults. Both are active in the National Wild Turkey Federation. Kaczmarek is on the board of directors of Rock Creek Disabled Outdoors, a group that organizes hunts for individuals with disabilities. Krumm is president of AFSCME Local 122.

Theirs is also a luxury-free life. They don’t have cable or satellite TV. They hardly go out to the movies or restaurants. To save on groceries, every six weeks they drive 45 minutes each way to Eau Claire, where they find lower prices. They reserve most of their fun and entertainment to outdoor activities in the months when the weather chooses to cooperate.

“We literally live paycheck to paycheck,” Krumm says. “We have everything accounted for. I know exactly how much my bills are, and how much to pay out of each check so all of my bills get paid and daycare gets paid, and we obviously have a food budget.”

It’s hard to reconcile Krumm and her family with the Gov. Scott Walker image of public employees as overcompensated and spoiled. Many fellow Wisconsinites swallowed the governor’s lie as he pushed through Act 10, the law that took away collective bargaining rights from most public workers in the state.

“They believe we have a million dollars and a Cadillac health insurance program and we get everything handed to us, and it’s just not the truth,” Krumm says. “It’s not even close.”

Walker’s Act 10 campaign was waged against an imaginary enemy, a public employee boogeyman he conjured up for his own political ends. Krumm and Kaczmarek just wanted a chance to serve, and the means to raise a family in a safe and quiet corner of the state where traditional values endure.

Instead, since its passage four years ago, Act 10’s standout achievement has been to chip away at the stability that Krumm and her family, and thousands of public workers across the state, managed to erect in their lives. In the last few years, the once-unthinkable idea of quitting her state job and leaving Thorp resurfaces periodically in Krumm’s mind.

“I always liked my job,” says Krumm, who followed in her parents’ footsteps, both of whom were corrections officers. “But it’s not so good anymore, it’s just not.”

The loss of her collective bargaining rights has left her vulnerable to the whims and hostilities of her employer. At times she feels like a punching bag. It’s one blow after another, and another, and another….


The Rebuilding Has Begun

More than 80 years ago and 180 miles southeast of Thorp, in Madison, a group of public workers laid the foundations for what would become AFSCME, the largest public employee union in the nation.

Until 2011, Wisconsin public workers and government agencies relied on collective bargaining agreements to provide order and structure in their workplaces. Like the roof and walls of a house that depend on its frame for support, the contracts were the underlying structure of employee-management relations. Before Act 10 became effective on June 29, 2011, it wasn’t clear what, if anything, would replace the negotiated agreements. The answer, in the short term, turned out to be nothing. Anticipating the new law was like preparing for a natural disaster in a category of its own, and little could meteorologists guess at the extent of the damage. Returning to the workplace the morning after, the structure seemed intact but had been gutted from inside.

“What took us 80 years to build took him one day to destroy,” says Krumm, referring to Walker.

As it collapsed, the structure fell by parts. Public workers experienced it as a series of blows. These included significant increases in health and pension costs, and drastic limitations on collective bargaining. Local unions were strapped further as they lost dues deduction, and unity fell by the wayside.

But the rebuilding has begun. Councils and affiliates throughout the nation are discussing ways to work together more closely, including unifying. In Wisconsin, AFSCME now has a single council, Council 32, instead of three. The streamlining will help public workers become stronger and more nimble; it will allow us to refocus our mission, strategy and goals.

The new council is named after our union’s founding year, 1932. It’s a reminder of our origins, but also of the fact that the founders of AFSCME came together at a difficult time for the entire nation, in the midst of the Great Depression. 

We’ve come a long way, in Wisconsin and across the nation. And today, we’re AFSCME Strong.


The AFSCME Strong Campaign

Through the AFSCME Strong campaign, our entire union is being transformed as we face the greatest challenge in our history.

The new campaign will build on the success we’ve had during the past year, engaging activists and signing up more than 140,000 new members. Organizing is job one. In the next year, AFSCME Strong seeks to engage 80 percent of our members in the struggle, one conversation at a time. 

To achieve this ambitious goal, we will need to recruit and train 5 percent of the membership to become AFSCME Strong activists. Like the successful Volunteer Member Organizers of the 50,000 Stronger campaign, these activists will initiate those one-on-one conversations with coworkers.

The goal is to have an army of AFSCME activists engaged for the 2016 election, focusing on issues of greatest concern to members. To be AFSCME Strong politically, to fend off the attacks of extremist politicians and to elect candidates who care about the middle class, we are seeking to enlist 10 percent of the membership to become PEOPLE MVPs.

In addition, the union will celebrate AFSCME members and the public services we provide, seeking to change the public perception of employees who have been vilified by politicians like Walker. What we do makes a difference in communities across the nation, and AFSCME will make that case in every forum.

We Have Each Other for Support

Act 10’s tough-luck, you’re-on-your-own bias is hard to reconcile with the culture in Thorp, where neighbors and even strangers help each other out. It’s hard to know what to expect now that Walker’s strain of divisive politics has found its way up here. But Krumm remains hopeful.

She recalls a day not too long ago when a fellow union member called her at five o’clock in the morning. The weather had shut down the school, Kaczmarek was out of town, and she was in a bind.

“He’s up at five o’clock in the morning on his day off to get in touch with me and make sure I know that school is closed,” she says. “And then he volunteers to pick up my kids from daycare and take them to the union hall to meet me at the union hall, because I had to work. He didn’t have to do any of that, and I didn’t ask him to. He did it all on his own, and that was the biggest help ever.”

That kind of friendship and support is hard to find. It’s why Krumm cherishes her life in Thorp, and it’s also why she joined a union. Her union was dealt a thousand blows, but the rebuilding has begun. 

“I have the hope that we’re going to be able to start rebuilding what was demolished,” she says. “I mean, it’s going to take years. I’ll probably be retired before it’s complete. But I have the hope that there’s a rebuilding process coming in, and I would like to be a part of it.”

So does Mike Turner. Turner is a custodian for the Eau Claire Area School District Buildings and Grounds Department and the president of AFSCME Local 560. When asked about Wisconsin post-Act 10, what hurts is the memory of what is now gone.

“Things like seniority, things like just-cause standards of discipline, these are all gone,” he says. “There’s been no movement on the salary schedule, people haven’t received longevity steps, and basically negotiations are kind of a joke these days.”

Management may still be sitting down at the table with union reps, but they’re no longer negotiating.

“They’re just telling me what I’m going to get,” Turner says. “It’s more like an informative session. ‘Here’s what we’ve budgeted for you.’”

But what keeps Turner in the fight are his ties to the community and his responsibility to the workers he represents. He knows that no matter how tough the struggle, he can rely on his colleagues, his community and his union sisters and brothers for support.

“I went to these schools,” he says. “The teachers that work in these schools were my teachers, this is my home. And these workers are my members, and I very much have a feeling of responsibility to the community and responsibility to the future, to my children, and to Eau Claire to stick it out.”

Despite the Attacks, We Stay Strong

On April 16, 2012, peanut butter was at the center of an inmate-on-officer attack that, according to a former warden, “forever changed the future for all employees of the Stanley Correctional Institution, in addition to the futures of their families and friends.”

In fact, the future of most public workers in Wisconsin had already changed the year before, when Governor Walker signed Act 10 into law. But the outcome of the attack would have been a lot worse if not for the local officers’ union.

On the day in question, Carrie Seichter, a sergeant at Stanley and member of AFSCME Local 122, was asked to search the cell of Paul Golden, an inmate serving a sentence for burglary, sexual assault and kidnapping. Golden, who worked in the kitchen, was suspected of stealing peanut butter and hiding it in his room.

As Seichter recalls, she came by early in the morning, on the second floor of a housing unit. At first Golden wouldn’t respond, but soon he came out and went downstairs to the dayroom, where Seichter told him to wait. Golden soon created a commotion, and as soon as Seichter stepped outside the cell, he ran up the stairs charging at her.

“He came at me running and punching and I was holding my arms out,” she recalls. “I think I got, maybe, one swing off. I got knocked unconscious on the floor, on the cement. And then I don’t remember.”

Seichter suffered a concussion, frontal lobe damage and a broken nose. Subsequently, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

And yet, instead of offering support, management at the Stanley Correctional Institution took advantage of the post-Act 10 environment to further try to break her and her union. After the attack, they tried to push her off workers’ compensation, cancel her prescription medicines and block payment of her medical bills. They even tried to pass off her injuries as a pre-existing condition.

But they did not succeed. And they never will.

Seichter still sounds incredulous when recounting her struggle with her employer. After a 13-year career, how could they do this to her?

“They would have let me go with nothing,” she says. “Absolutely nothing.”

But thanks to her union, Seichter survived all these attacks. Because her AFSCME sisters and brothers stood up for her, she’s doing alright.

“If I didn’t have the union I wouldn’t have anything,” she says. “The union has done so much for me that I could never repay them for everything they’ve done. I mean, without the union people have no chance.”

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