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Stressed for Success

Juggling work, family and union activities can take its toll. Three AFSCME activists talk about the trade-offs and rewards.

Ah, ’60s romance. ... Mrs. June Cleaver, dressed to the nines, dispensing lipsticked kisses, morning and night, to the Beav, Wally and, of course, Mr. Cleaver. And how about "Father Knows Best," or "The Donna Reed Show"? Mornings, Mom stands at the door, packed lunches in hand. Dinner is always on time.

It’s a nice walk down memory lane, but better not linger. Today, in 84 percent of all marriages, both husband and wife work outside the home. For many families, that means dinner isn’t on the table at quittin’ time, and Mom or Dad could stay home with a sick child, shop for groceries or vacuum the living room.

Life in a union family can throw another time wrench into the works: Union meetings and activities come on top of other responsibilities.

As women juggle home and work duties, men are being called on to do more, too. We asked three active AFSCME men to share their secrets for balancing the demands of home, work and union.

MERCED OLIVAS. "Sometimes it’s the union meeting you miss," says Merced Olivas, chief steward for AFSCME Local 59 in El Paso, Texas. "Sometimes it’s a school function for one of your kids. You don’t want to miss any of it," Olivas notes. "The reality is, you have to."

Olivas juggles his hectic schedule with his wife, Cande, who works in a nursing home. Because Cande leaves for work at 6 a.m., it’s Merced’s job to get his two teenage children off to school in the morning. Cande gets off at 2 p.m., in time to welcome the kids home from school.

Once he finishes his work as evaluations officer in the El Paso Community College admissions office, Olivas puts in another 20-plus hours per week facilitating grievances for his local’s members. And, when a grievance is lost or a union brother or sister wrongfully terminated, the work can be stressful. Olivas stays up many nights working on appeals and reassuring others that they can make it through the process.

The long hours make scheduling time with his family all the more important. "Everything we do is planned," Olivas says. "But the kids are good, they know what they’re responsible for, and if they need me, they can reach me at work or the local office."

ELMER MINES. After shopping with his wife, attending a school luncheon and his son’s band concert, Elmer Mines will sit for an interview this Sunday afternoon, then drive 40 miles to preside over a meeting of AFSCME Local 3983. Hours later, the local president will return home, sleep a few hours, and rise again in the dark. It’s Monday morning and he’s back on the road for his 77-mile morning trek to Staunton, Virginia’s Western State Hospital.

Mines arrives at work about 7 a.m. each day, leaving an hour to talk with union members before reporting to his job as office assistant in the hospital’s transportation department. His half-hour lunches are devoted to union business too, and another hour after work. There are, of course, some evening meetings and the monthly gathering of the state AFSCME council. At the end of his grueling days — no matter the schedule — he drives the 77 miles back home to his farm in Warm Springs.

At home, Mines does 98 percent of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, whatever needs to be done. While his wife, Mary Lee, used to work, she was disabled several years ago after a fall. "It was a shock to us all," Elmer recalls, "but we’re handling it as best we can." Sons Chris, 17, and Brandon, 14, "sacrifice a lot with me splitting my time," Elmer notes. "But they’ve told me they respect me for it."

GEORGE FORST. Now that his 15-year-old daughter has friends who can drive, George Forst can spend less time as a chauffeur.

The Nebraska Association of Public Employees Local 251 member says he hopes his daughter’s greater independence will mean a little more time for him and his wife JoBeth. "Finding time for each other is the biggest problem we have with our busy schedules," Forst says.

But Forst is not taking it easy. "I find myself getting more involved in local activities."

He just started a three-year term on the executive board for grievance appeals for the city of Omaha, Neb., where he is a landscape gardener. He’s also a representative to the city safety committee.

"This is a pretty conservative part of the country," he says. "Getting the union message out is kind of tough. Somepeople don’t know what a union is anymore."

UNION WORK. Like Forst, Olivas and Mines find purpose and direction in their union work. Olivas, for instance, says he "keeps perspective," working with the city central labor council. "It opens up communication," he notes. "You feel like you’re not alone."

Mines talks about how fortunate he is to be able to help people as he has through his union. "Two years ago, Local 3983 didn’t exist," he says. "Today we have almost 400 members and a huge organizing area. We’re ready to go out and do it."

But Mines knows well that you have to take time off, for your sanity and your health. After surgery for skin cancer four months ago, Mines returned to work within four days against doctor’s orders. That laid him back in bed for a month. "It was stupid," Mines says. Today, he’s healthy and back on the job, more aware than ever of the need for balance.

For Olivas, Saturday afternoons are sacred when the University of Texas at El Paso Miners play football games at home.

Forst plays paint ball to relieve stress. "It’s grown-up army," he says, where the guys "scream and yell and shoot" things with compressed air guns firing spurts of paint.

Mines relaxes on his farm. "You have to set priorities," Mines says. "You have to give to your family, and hear the needs of your people. Set a schedule, so you can accommodate everyone."

By Catherine Barnett Alexander

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