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Meet AFSCME’s Never Quit Innovation Award winners

We’re honoring AFSCME members who have made a difference to their union, their community and even to their state — and beyond.
By Clyde Weiss ·

As AFSCME members, we’re committed to providing the best possible public services for our communities. That commitment is reflected in the creative ideas and innovations we bring to our jobs, making our communities even better.

Innovation sometimes means sticking your neck out to offer a new solution to a problem that nobody else has thought of, and it can be risky. But the rewards — in the pride that comes from finding ways to bring public services in-house, makes the risks worth taking. Through their innovations, AFSCME members have earned the respect of their employers and their neighbors.

Innovation not only makes our communities better, it makes our union stronger. That’s why we’re honoring four of our sisters and brothers with AFSCME’s first-ever Never Quit Innovation Award. It honors members who have made a difference to their union, their community and even to their state — and beyond.

Saving Lives

Melvin N. Puu Melvin N. Puu

As a lifeguard and surfer in Hawaii, Melvin N. Puu’s job is to save lives, and he’s saved many. Because saving lives is his calling, he helped create an innovation that will save thousands of lives worldwide.

Oahu’s North Shore has the reputation of having some of the biggest waves in the world, and the surfers who tackle them face serious injury and even death without quick rescue. Watching surfers being knocked off their boards, Puu — alongside a group of other “big wave” surfers and lifeguards — helped pioneer the development and use of personal rescue watercraft.

Their innovative and life-saving idea: attach a “boogie board” to a WaveRunner, produced by the Yamaha Motor Company. They also developed a rescue program and advocated in court for permission to use jet skis in rescues conducted by public lifeguards.

They succeeded. By 1991 the city and county of Honolulu made the use of rescue craft part of its daily operations. Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi also became interested in using the techniques and equipment as a public service. In 2014, the Ocean Safety Division launched the service with a $320,000 budget.

Today, Puu is a water safety officer for the City and County of Honolulu's Emergency Services Department, working in the Ocean Safety Division on Oahu. His union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA)/AFSCME Local 152, represents the state’s lifeguards. He is HGEA’s Unit 14 director. And Puu's dedication to water safety doesn't end at Hawaii shores.

Puu helps train lifeguards in the use of the watercraft in rescues, at home and around the world.

Building Unity

Terry Magnant Terry Magnant

Who would have thought that gardening would strengthen a union?

Terry Magnant did.

A certified nursing assistant (CNA) working at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King, Magnant saw her union devastated after Gov. Scott Walker succeeded in 2011 in stripping away the rights of public service workers to come together in union to negotiate collectively.

Membership declined in the wake of Walker’s destructive Act 10. Magnant knew she needed to keep her sisters and brothers in Local 555 (Council 32) united. They joined together, and as a group they were able to beat back unilateral scheduling changes.

Magnant, who became the local’s president in 2014, then came up with her innovative idea to maintain her co-workers camaraderie: gardening.

So last May, Local 555 members dug in — literally — to revitalize a long-neglected garden on the grounds of the Veterans home. They pitched in to buy and plant hundreds of new perennials. They created a garden that has since come into its second season.

Magnant and her fellow members of Local 555 continue to work with pride to maintain and revitalize the garden. It’s the same way they work with pride to keep their union flourishing — an innovation that has sprouted its own blossoms in a garden of public services.

Safety First

Eric Wisner Eric Wisner

Necessity is often the mother of invention — and so it was for St. Louis sanitation worker Eric Wisner.

Wisner, a heavy equipment operator II in the city’s Refuse Division, sits on the city’s Accident Review Committee/Safety Steering Committee. With 17 years of experience under his belt, he is uniquely qualified to see shortcomings that could lead to injury or death on the job.

As a steward of Local 410 (Missouri Council 72), Wisner is always on the lookout for safety measures to protect his co-workers. Realizing that newly hired employees in his division lacked an adequate training program, he innovated.

In 2014, Wisner led an effort to improve the city’s training program to more safely, efficiently and effectively collect commercial and residential refuse. Today, new hires get two weeks of training on equipment they must operate, and more for more complicated operations.

This year, he also led negotiations to win a 10 percent bonus for workers in training.

Wisner and his fellow AFSCME members work relentlessly to improve safety and increase fairness within his division. That effort involved building strength on the job through organizing, then using that strength in innovative ways to improve the vital public services they provide.

Doing It Better, Smarter

Barbara Cooper Barbara Cooper

West Chester University custodian Barbara “Bunnie” Cooper didn't give in to outsourcing — she fought back.

Cooper knew that the employees of her eastern Pennsylvania campus could do their work better and for less money than companies hired from outside. She set about to prove it.

As president of Local 2345 (Council 88) and treasurer of Council 13, Cooper understood the threat that outsourcing (sending jobs to an outside company) posed to her co-workers and fellow AFSCME members. Many were already unhappy that the university often hired outside of the system, rather than promote from within. Now their work was on the line.

It was time to take matters into their own hands. So Cooper identified work slated to be outsourced — including carpentry, heating and air conditioning and cement repair — and had her co-workers select which projects they would like to do. Then she gathered the evidence needed to persuade the university to let her co-workers carry out the work.

The university agreed. Cooper and her co-workers saved the university considerably, even with overtime. In 2015, they saved more than $250,000 on projects that would otherwise have been outsourced.

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