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A Personal Battle on Main Street

Across the country, AFSCME members are shouldering unprecedented roles as activists.

By Jon Melegrito
Main Street Movement

Laura Peterson slept overnight on a cold stone floor in the Wisconsin Capitol to ensure she would be heard in the morning by lawmakers. Lenny Allen became the voice of hundreds of New Yorkers losing their jobs and their benefits, even as cancer sapped his strength. Elena Blackman and Tracy Wiggins overcame shyness, picking up microphones to speak out at rallies for their fellow public employees and public services.

Across the country, AFSCME members — outraged by right-wing attacks on collective bargaining and the American middle class, and tired of seeing jobs lost in their communities — are shouldering unprecedented roles as activists. They’re tired of watching politicians placate the same corporations that ship American jobs overseas and dodge taxes on their multi-billion-dollar profits.

Aided and sustained by AFSCME’s resources, their efforts and personal sacrifices form the backbone of what we call the Main Street Movement.

But the Main Street Movement cannot rely solely on the contributions of a dedicated few. You can play a vital role, by volunteering, attending rallies and staying informed. Read on for the stories of your fellow AFSCME members doing just that. Get inspired. Get involved.

Mike Quieto
Mike Quieto | Local 60, Wisconsin Council 40. (Photo by Greg Dixon)

Feeding the Forces

Madison, Wis. – Early on in the massive public protest of Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) effort to crush public unions this past winter, Mike Quieto headed to a room in the Capitol being used as a command center for activists. Upon arrival, he discovered that the 50 or so volunteers there were sustaining themselves mainly with pizza and doughnuts — not the stuff of stamina.

A Dane County administrative support clerk and member of Local 60 (Council 40), Quieto, 34, went into action as a cook, and the next day, the inviting smells of beef stew and vegetable soup wafted from a couple of slow cookers on top of an impromptu food stand.

For nearly two weeks, Quieto spent six hours each night chopping meat and vegetables and cooking soups and stews, curries and casseroles. Each morning, he loaded up the meals and wheeled them five blocks to the Capitol. For another hour every evening, he visited grocery co-ops and restaurant owners who were happy to donate fresh supplies for his temporary kitchen.

Cooking is a part of Quieto’s family legacy. He hails from three generations of farmers who canned everything they raised — tomatoes, green beans, corn — and he grew up watching his mother labor in the kitchen.

“I saw my role as fueling the protest with healthy food,” says Quieto, who also volunteers as a community soup kitchen organizer. “You can live only so long on starch and sugar.”

On the last day, he posted this sign by his stand: “Even with the Crock-Pots gone, the occupation will live on!”

Laura Peterson
Laura Peterson | Local 171, Wisconsin Council 24. (Photo by Greg Dixon)

Sleepless in Madison

Madison, Wis. – While Quieto was cooking, Laura Peterson was in another area of the Capitol, doing her part to keep the occupation tidy. Wearing a marshal’s vest, the University of Wisconsin groundskeeper helped organize a clean-up crew to neaten the protest site daily.

A member of Local 171 (Council 24), Peterson had initially gone to the Capitol to testify at the Senate hearings on Walker’s so-called budget-repair bill. She waited 11 hours for her turn to testify, lying on a cold marble floor with only her coat for cover. The night before, she had gotten only two hours of sleep after posting flyers all over the city, sending news releases to TV and radio stations and reminding co-workers about the rally. The week before, Peterson put in 42 hours — in three days — plowing snow.

Although weary, she managed to testify effectively at 6:30 a.m. the following morning. Rousing applause from protest supporters got her adrenalin flowing for days. “I’ve never been this involved before,” Peterson admits. “But when I learned that the bill was about busting unions, I felt I had to speak up.”

After her testimony, she volunteered to edit her union’s weekly newsletter, to keep members fully informed and spur them into action.

Governor Walker’s onerous bill passed, but the outpouring of support from all over the country for Wisconsin workers left her with a strong sense of optimism. “What happened here united people across unions and across communities,” says Peterson.

James Adkins
James Adkins | Ohio Civil Service Employees Association Local 11 (OCSEA Chapter 4710). (Photo by OCSEA)

Armed with Clipboard, He Joins the Battle

Richwood, Ohio – After driving more than 3,000 miles and collecting nearly 2,000 signatures on the petition against SB 5, James Adkins feels empowered. Maybe that’s because he only set out to collect half that many.

A member of OCSEA Chapter 4710, the 50-year-old corrections officer from Richwood initially planned to collect 1,000 signatures. “But I was encouraged to get more when just as many Republicans as Democrats were telling me that SB 5 went too far.”

On the last day of the petition drive, Adkins learned that OCSEA needed 50 more signatures to put them over the top. “There were thunderstorms,” he recalls. “But they didn’t stop me and my wife from going out to sign up folks. We were at it from dawn to dusk, with clipboards in one hand and umbrellas in the other. And we made it happen.”

What didn’t happen was the vacation Adkins had been looking forward to last May. “I was going turkey hunting in Delaware,” he says. “But that was a small sacrifice for a much bigger prize — getting SB 5 supporters to change their minds.”

And to make sure Ohioans vote in November, Adkins swore off deer hunting in October. “The turkeys and the deer will always be there,” he says. “But our union may not be if we don’t do something this year.”

Elena Blackman
Elena Blackman | Local 101, California Council 57. (Photo by David Bacon)

In the Trenches for the First Time

San Jose, Calif. – Elena Blackman has a confession. “I’ve never been any kind of activist in my life,” she says. “But when the city tried to take away our bargaining rights, I knew I had to stand up and fight.”

A workers-compensation adjuster for 23 years, Blackman didn’t need any prompting to step out of her comfort zone and speak up for the first time when she learned a ballot measure posed by the city would gut city workers’ pensions and outsource crucial public services.

“Losing our rights would be devastating to my family, my co-workers and to everything I have worked hard for all my life,” she says.

Blackman learned what it meant to be mistreated when her mother, an immigrant from Nicaragua, endured racial slurs while working as a seamstress. “She fought back,” Blackman says. “She taught me to hold my head high and be proud of who I am. It’s that memory that woke me up. I feel like I’ve been asleep for 20 years.”

So the 56-year-old grandmother who’d never held a microphone and considered herself extremely shy took to a stage in San Jose and began exhorting anyone who would listen to fight city hall. Sacrificing precious family time on evenings and weekends, she went out with Local 101 (Council 57) co-workers, knocking on doors and collecting signatures against the devastating ballot measure. To stave off the outsourcing of her department’s work, she even addressed the city council at a meeting.

“We saved our jobs,” she says proudly. “I know what it means to be mistreated. This is a wake-up call. I’ve only just begun to fight.”

Rick Price
Rick Price | Michigan State Employees Association (MSEA). (Photo by Karen Murphy)

Ready to Run for Office

Lansing, Mich. – Rick Price, 61, is so fed up with right-wing politicians’ war on the middle class that he is poised to run for elected office himself.

An elevator inspector for the state’s Department of Consumer and Industry Services and a member of the Michigan State Employees Association (MSEA), Price wants to stop Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and his arch-conservative allies.

“They are taking everything away from the working middle class and making this a society of rich and poor,” he says. “Now they want to cut our wages. That isn’t right.”

Price writes to elected officials, petitions for the recall of the governor and attends protest rallies, including one calling for the repeal of the so-called local dictator law, which installs emergency managers who can disband elected boards and revoke collective bargaining agreements.

“I’ve been living a normal, common life like the guy that I am,” says Price. “It’s been only recently that I’ve felt the need to stand up and speak out.”

He has his sights set on a seat in the State Assembly. “When that happens,” Price declares, “I’ll be out there standing up for the common guy.”

Tracy Wiggins
Tracy Wiggins | Local 1526, Massachusetts Council 93. (Photo by Linda Corcoran)

Turning a Page in Local Labor History

Boston, Mass. – They had done it. After a heated battle, news came this summer that four Boston public libraries targeted for closing would at least temporarily remain open thanks to the activism of Tracy Wiggins and her colleagues.

Wiggins was more than just relieved. “This means that my co-workers still have jobs,” says the 43-year-old library assistant. “It means these facilities will remain open to our community.”

A member of Local 1526 (Council 93), Wiggins became a leading spokesperson against a city council plan to shut down the branches and lay off 75 employees. “If we didn’t cry out, we could have lost,” she says.

Shy and reserved, Wiggins — moved by the plight of her co-workers and the potential loss to the community — summoned the courage to speak in public for the first time at a hearing before the libraries’ board of trustees. “No one else could do it on that day, so I was chosen,” she recalls. “I was really petrified and I developed laryngitis. But I kept thinking of my coworkers who were going to lose their jobs.”

Fortunately, she recovered her voice shortly before the hearing and became the voice of those whose jobs were on the line.

Having worked in libraries for 22 years, Wiggins knows many of the elderly and the children from low-income neighborhoods who come to her branch regularly. “Because of them,” she vows, “I’m ready to jump in anytime to fight the fight.”

Lenny Allen
Lenny Allen | Local 2021, New York District Council 37 (DC 37). (Photo by DC 37)

The Ultimate Fighting Champion

New York City – All at once, Lenny Allen found himself fighting for his job, his union brothers and sisters, and his life.

When the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation shut down last December, Allen and nearly 1,000 members of Local 2021 (DC 37) lost their jobs. Another 800 of the agency’s retirees lost their health insurance and supplemental benefits.

Outraged by the closure, DC 37 members marched on the State Capitol in Albany demanding that legislators save the jobs and benefits of Off-Track Betting employees. Allen marched with them, even though he was undergoing chemotherapy that sapped his energy. Following the rally, he made several trips to Albany and, along with other labor leaders and rank-and-file members, lobbied Democratic and Republican leaders to reverse their decision.

Allen’s voice and presence were loud and visible at press conferences and public events. The bills that would reestablish Off-Track Betting were unsuccessful.

“I am determined to hang in there and fight until our members get their jobs back and our retirees are made whole again,” says the 31-year AFSCME veteran. “I’m not one who gives up.”

Cynthia Hart
Cynthia Hart | Memphis, Tenn., Local 1733. (Photo by Andrea Earle)

Keeping a Legacy of Justice Alive

Memphis, Tenn. – Cynthia Hart was only 10 years old when the Memphis sanitation workers of Local 1733 marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the 1968 garbage workers’ strike. Forty-three years later, Hart is now a sanitation worker and member of that same local, fighting a similar battle.

“I’m proud of their legacy,” says Hart of her predecessors in 1733. “But years later, we’re still fighting it.” Why? “Because the people in charge don’t care about King’s legacy and the struggle our members went through to gain dignity and respect. We have to keep their spirit alive.”

Despite a grueling schedule at the garbage dumps, Hart helped organize her coworkers in a rally against a city council plan to privatize solid-waste collection. Although the workers prevailed, the privatization proposal could come forward again. If it does, “We’ll be ready with our placards and bullhorns.”

Hart’s dream is to build community gardens and transform blighted neighborhoods, one block at a time. “Seeing things grow can lift up the spirit of this hurting city,” she says. “I’d rather be tilling soil than having to waive protest signs.”

Tony Blair
Tony Blair | Local 2227, Florida Council 79. (Photo by Nancy Blair)

Switching Parties, Stopping Scott

Bartow, Fla. – A lifelong Republican, Tony Blair had had enough with politicians attacking retirees and working, middle-class families. So he switched parties.

He voted against Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2010 and lately has been confronting conservative-led, anti-union actions in his state.

As president of Local 2227 (Council 79), the 57-year-old cabinet maker is also mobilizing the 400 members of his union — mostly rural white-and blue-collar employees of the Polk County school board — to be more politically involved.

In March, he rented a bus and took 55 of his members to Tallahassee to lobby their representatives. It was first-time activism for most of them. They were upset with the governor for targeting their pensions and health insurance subsidies.

“We beat back that Scott attack,” Blair says. “But the war’s not over.”

Preparing for the next battle — a get-out-the-vote campaign to replace two school board members — Blair has undergone a knee-replacement surgery, which he had delayed twice. “I’m worn out for working too hard and running around too much,” he says. “But my members come first. We will not be used by politicians who win our votes, then turn a deaf ear.”

Jim Irwin
Jim Irwin | Local 1435, Pennsylvania Council 88. (Photo by Marc Asher)

Taking a Swing at the Privateers

Gracedale, Pa. – Until last August, Jim Irwin’s commitment to playing softball most nights meant he had no time for just about any other activity that didn’t involve a bat, ball and glove. Now, for the center fielder who is president of Local 1435 (Pennsylvania District Council 88), the feel of the glove is all but a distant memory.

Irwin has temporarily abandoned his leisure-hours love to help stop the privatization of Gracedale, a nursing home with approximately 700 low-income patients. When Northampton County proposed privatizing the facility, Irwin, a housekeeper there, realized he couldn’t sit on the bench. Together with his wife, a nurse at Gracedale, he joined his union’s fight to save it. Working with a coalition of families of Alzheimer’s patients, they launched a ballot initiative to postpone the privatization plan.

Irwin phone-banked and went to residences and grocery stores, asking voters to sign petitions. The measure got on the ballot despite two court challenges. Irwin campaigned nearly every day including weekends, starting at 6 a.m. Through the efforts of Local 1435 and its coalition partners, voters rejected the county’s scheme by a 3-to-1 margin.

The outfielder is philosophical about his lost softball games. “This was a lot more important,” he says. “Sometimes, you’ve got to make some sacrifices to achieve what you want to achieve.”

Eric Jewkes
Eric Jewkes Public Safety Employees Association Local 803 (PSEA). (Photo by PSEA)

Police Officer Wins Bipartisan Agreement

Fairbanks, Alaska – After nearly four years without a contract, in an environment of strong anti-collective bargaining sentiment, members of the Public Safety Employees Association (PSEA) / AFSCME Local 803 cultivated a relationship with a conservative councilwoman in order to get an agreement passed.

As president of his local chapter, police officer Eric Jewkes, 40, played an active role in this effort to bridge a divide in the local political community, testifying before city council members and enlisting the support of Fairbanks residents.

“We all realized that we need to work together to find the right solutions to our problems,” says Jewkes. He describes himself as “pretty conservative on things like crime, the death penalty and welfare,” but adds, “I also believe in having a level playing field in terms of employment.”

An officer for more than 16 years, Jewkes is also active in the community. He coaches youth baseball and participates in an annual 550-mile adventure relay of running, biking and rafting to raise funds for a charity that fulfills wishes for children with life-threatening illnesses.

Karen Shropshire
Karen Shropshire | Local 3, Georgia. (Photo by Local 3)

A Rookie Activist Finds Veteran Success

Atlanta, Ga. – Even though Karen Shropshire, 54, had been an AFSCME member for only 10 months, she shed a newcomer’s natural reluctance to jump into activism.

Shropshire joined an effort to boost the ranks of Local 3. Her contribution paid off in stunning fashion: membership rose more than five times. Spurring the drive was an historic ordinance Fulton County, Ga., commissioners passed last year to give 4,000 county employees representation rights.

But it took individual commitment and initiative to achieve that result. A legal specialist in the public defender’s office, Shropshire organized meet-and-greet sessions, using the issue of salary increases as a topic of conversation. She also mapped out a petition drive against a budget plan that denied raises to county workers earning less than $40,000 a year. Testifying before the board of commissioners, she argued how public service workers are vital to the community. Members fanned out and knocked on doors for weeks, collecting 1,500 signatures. The result: lower-paid workers got their raises.

“Although it was a close vote, we made our point,” Shropshire says. “We’re all here to serve and make this county a better place to live, so we should all be treated fairly.”

Ralph Randall
Ralph Randall | Local 1653, Washington, DC, Council 26. (Photo by Jon Melegrito)

Fighting for Jobs, Justice

Washington, DC – Ralph Randall was one of 4,000 Federal Aviation Administration employees who were furloughed for two weeks when Congress failed to approve a stopgap funding measure this year. He decided to speak out — for the first time ever — against elected officials.

They are “looking out only for the super-rich, instead of you and me,” said Randall, a member of Local 1653 (Council 26), at a Capitol Hill rally this summer. “Radical politicians are waging a war on working families and public services. We will not let these politicians destroy the American dream.”

A program and management analyst for 30 years, Randall called on politicians “to stop playing games while millions still suffer without jobs.”

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