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AFSCME’s Edge

Rooted in history. Redefining our future.

By Clyde Weiss and Kate Childs Graham

AFSCME WORKSThere’s an edge to AFSCME these days. True, we are rooted in 75 years of history. But in big ways and small, unprecedented attacks have AFSCME members from coast to coast standing up in solidarity and doing things differently.

We’re using new technology and reaching beyond traditional borders to organize. We’re building unprecedented coalitions to make sure we mobilize an army of activists ahead of elections and ballot initiatives. At boot-camp style media trainings, we’re helping our members develop their stories of public service for TV, radio and news interviews — to make them prominent in the national conversation about labor. We’re using YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, texting and e-mail alerts to quickly get in front of the public with powerful, smart and viral messages about the work we do and the politicians who just don’t get it. And, by expanding our outreach to our youngest members — AFSCME’s Next Wave — we are solidifying our commitment to the next 75 years of workers.

Some people think unions are a thing of the past. AFSCME is proving them wrong. Here’s how.

Organizing

Crossing Boundaries to Win Big

Jose Gonzalez and Oren Barzilay
Jose Gonzalez and Oren Barzilay (Photo by Justin Lee)

In the coming weeks and months, AFSCME is piloting a new program that combines our organizing work with innovative touchscreen tablet technology. Using handheld devices, members in Wisconsin can sign a union card or a petition right on the screen. Their information goes into a master database, which enhances both privacy protection and data collection. If they think a co-worker might be interested in union membership, organizers can pull up a list of their colleagues with a swipe of the screen and note that tip. If there’s a great video to show them about the benefits of unions or the attacks we face, YouTube is only a click away.

We’re traveling 3,000 miles, from the beating heart of New York City to the mountains of northern California, to help organize new members of AFSCME.

A group of uniformed EMTs and paramedics from the New York City Fire Department traveled to California this winter and successfully helped organize 260 paramedics, EMTs and vehicle supply technicians who work for Rural Metro Ambulance in Santa Clara County, Calif.

These men and women, known as Volunteer Member Organizers (VMOs), spoke with their California counterparts about their own experiences with AFSCME, and made the case for joining United EMS Workers – a family of 20,000. The first task for the VMOs from the Big Apple: Dispel misconceptions. A key concern was that a union that represented municipal workers would not relate to private-sector employees’ needs.

“They thought we didn’t have much to worry about,” said Jose E. Gonzalez, a member of Uniformed EMS Officers Union/AFSCME Local 3621 (DC 37). “But we explained to them it didn’t matter — that we all do the same things. What’s important is to have representation. That’s where we started telling them our experiences.”

Samantha Tennison
Samantha Tennison
(Photo by Rebecca Stark)

“They talked to us on a person-to-person level — that there was no difference between us,” said Santa Clara paramedic Samantha Tennison. “They absolutely made it crystal clear we do the same job, regardless of who we work for.”

In turn, Rural Metro workers relayed to the New Yorkers their own concerns about work conditions and frustrated career ambitions. “It seemed like they had no future, no career ladder, no job security,” said Oren Barzilay, an executive board member of Uniformed EMTs, Paramedics & Fire Inspectors F.D.N.Y/AFSCME Local 2507 (DC 37).

“When I came to EMS in 1995, we had no future here, either,” Barzilay said. But that changed as their union grew stronger through member activism. “We’ve made historical changes, not just for us, but nationally. EMS is now a career. We’ve been able to gain job security, health benefits, and a pension. I sat down with Samantha and explained that all these things we had were achieved not because we were special, but because we were committed to improving our work conditions.”

Tennison liked what she heard. “It was really exciting to see just what they were able to do in New York — to transform their job into a profession.” With her East Coast teammates by her side 12 to 14 hours a day, she and other Rural Metro workers began spreading the gospel.

When the vote was tallied in February it was overwhelming: United EMS Workers/AFSCME Local 4911 was born. Nobody voted against joining the union. “I cried,” Tennison said. Barzilay adds, “We were both crying actually.”

Less than a month later, their victory was repeated in another Northern California county when 140 paramedics, EMTs, dispatchers, and supply service technicians at Medic Ambulance in Solano County voted in droves to become part of the new AFSCME union.

Political Action

We’ve Got an App for That

Rocky Jolly
Rocky Jolly (Photo by Tessa Berg)

A different type of coalition building is catching fire in other parts of the country. The newly formed We Are Ohio and We Are Wisconsin coalitions brought AFSCME members together in the past year not just with their own colleagues, but with other union members and non-union community members. We built coalitions that reached beyond labor and fought under one umbrella for worker justice like never before.

Rocky Jolly, Local 11 member and president of Chapter 2529, was a part of We Are Ohio. From phone banking to data entry, Jolly did it all and, through it all, employed We Are Ohio’s boots-on-the-ground attitude to topple Gov. John Kasich’s anti-worker Senate Bill 5. When it came to political action, Jolly said, “We Are Ohio was on top of it.”

The coalition “was one of the greatest things I have seen as far as collaboration, of us all coming together in a new way,” Jolly said. “We have to keep that unity and solidarity to keep fighting the battles we’ve got to fight.” Not only did these coalitions help unions pool our resources and streamline our message, they “ignited our own members to become more active.”

And the coalition building expanded nationally last year. AFSCME partnered with the United States Student Association to build the student movement in Michigan, New Jersey and Colorado. Our partnership helped bolster USSA’s numbers, to better fight the attacks that affect all of us, issues such as education funding and voter rights.

To sway federal policymakers on legislation like Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-working family budget plan and the payroll tax cut, AFSCME is using a trailblazing hotline system to make it easy and efficient for members to get in touch with their representatives. With this system, AFSCME members can call an 800 number, punch in their home zip code, hear a few points on the issue and get patched directly through to their legislator’s office.  We’ve got an unlimited number of lines so we can more efficiently mobilize members by issue and constituency. For instance, we have a dedicated line for retirees to call on Medicare, Social Security and other retirement issues. And after a call is made, AFSCME tracks it to see how many calls have been made to each office.

For state-level political action, AFSCME developed a smartphone app to make it quick and simple for members to contact their state legislators. With the app, all members have to do is type in their address and with a tap, they can send an e-mail or call their legislator. In places like Wisconsin, Ohio, New York and Florida, this app and the strategy behind it has given us a winning edge.

Communications

A Reality Show Worth Watching

Cecelia Moreira
Cecelia Moreira
(Photo by Noah Berger)

Before news mixed with opinion and traveled at the speed of a tweet, the face and voice of public workers was that of your next-door neighbor, your trash collector, the person who looked after your children. Now, corporate-backed politicians and pundits scream the loudest to try to define public workers negatively.

It’s not who AFSCME members really are. But it’s not enough to fight back with just the facts. We must appeal to peoples’ hearts as well as their heads. To do that, our members are telling their personal stories.

Members like Cecilia Moreira, an employee of the Records Department at University of California-Hastings and a member of UC Local 3299. She’s one of many AFSCME members participating in the union’s groundbreaking Faces and Voices trainings. More than a workshop, the two-day Faces and Voices program teaches workers how to develop their individual stories and deliver a strong message. It is these stories that transform the national conversation about public workers, change minds and move people to action.

Moreira reflected on the training, “The message is the same…talk from your heart, tell them your story, tell them the changes you want.”

Kelsie Raddas, a 27-year-old librarian from Local 3758 (Council 2) in Washington state, is a fellow Faces and Voices participant. Over the course of the training, Raddas developed her story and by the end, she was ready to deliver it to any journalist. “This was like a boot camp,” Raddas said, “and I’m ready to use what we learned here and take it into the battle.”

Kelsie Raddas
Kelsie Raddas
(Photo by Todd E. Swenson)

Raddas also runs her local’s Facebook page. AFSCME’s presence on Facebook is unprecedented. In addition to the many local and council pages, the national AFSCME’s Facebook page has more than 59,000 fans — the largest following in the labor movement. It’s not just a popularity contest. That type of reach in the most active social media sphere allows for quick dissemination of information and calls to action.

Through social media — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube — AFSCME is changing the face of the public worker, and also exposing the true face of its anti-worker foes. Take AFSCME’s most popular YouTube video, viewed more than 140,000 times, which contrasts remarks GOP Presidential-hopeful Mitt Romney gave in Michigan with the movie “Anchorman.” Our willingness to reflect pop culture doesn’t just make us hip, it makes us more strategic and more likely to get the attention of the broader public.

“That video was hilarious,” says Raddas of the “Anchorman”-Romney mashup. “It was just perfect.”

And perhaps most important to getting our message out to the public? She shared it with more than 275 friends on her Facebook page.

Next Wave

AFSCME’s Next Generation

Like Raddas, Mark Harrington is passionate about his union staying current. That zeal is rooted in his belief that AFSCME’s Next Wave, a network of young union leaders fostered by the union, will be crucial to building power for all workers through innovation and creativity.

He should know. Harrington is both president of Local 310 of Ohio Association of Public School Employees OAPSE/AFSCME Local 4 and a member of the Next Wave Advisory Committee created by Pres. Gerald W. McEntee last July. President McEntee envisioned a committee that advised on policies and issues from young workers’ perspectives, and Harrington is especially suited to that task. A technology technician for Hilliard City Schools near Columbus, he understands the latest technology and the social networking it enables with young people.

“We know how AFSCME works, but how does it work for young people?” he asks. “We have to make it appeal to the next generation.”

Mark Harrington
Mark Harrington
(Photo by Tessa Berg)

That relies in part on effectively using smartphones and tablets, Facebook and Twitter. Those social media platforms and the Next Wave Toolkit (which makes it easier to start new chapters, host events and get more involved in the union) help young members get — and stay — connected. “That’s where the youth go,” explained Harrington. “We can meet them on the phone or on Facebook and say we have a rally, we need your support, and we hope they get involved and show up.”

But those sophisticated tools of the younger generation must be paired with the enthusiasm that Harrington and other Next Wave leaders bring. As Harrington explains it, “I think what I provide to the Next Wave is desire” — the kind of desire that motivates action.

The difficulty of creating such desire among younger union members, he noted, is “the concept that it’s the ‘me generation.’ If they all think they can do it on their own, we’ll see a drop in union membership nationwide. It is better for us to band together.”

Harrington tells people, “we are striving to protect jobs and ensure equality, but we are not alone here. We have neighboring OAPSE locals. We also have AFSCME’s support, which reaches across this nation. We have the ability to fix problems without having to reinvent the wheel alone.”

To further that work, AFSCME leaders created the biennial Next Wave Conference, where young members gather to exchange ideas, get support from colleagues and participate in development workshops. And yes, there’s a conference app for that, too.

“We’re just trying to get our young folks involved with our good leaders today, to help them understand how the union runs,” says Harrington.

And how does that union run? Better, faster, stronger, smarter. That’s AFSCME’s edge.

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