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Why State Legislatures Matter

All politics — and all good and bad policy — are local.

By Jon Melegrito

The 2008 financial crisis and the 2010 elections created a harsh climate for workers across America. Corporate-backed candidates won 11 governorships and both legislative chambers in 26 states.

When the legislative sessions opened in 2011, these anti-worker politicians unleashed harmful bills in nearly every state. They included “right-to-work-for-less” proposals, attacks on public service workers’ collective bargaining rights, privatization schemes, and ballot initiatives attacking unions and public services.

In the 2012 sessions, we faced yet again a tidal wave

of anti-worker, anti-public services legislation. The brutal budget battles that ensued led to substantial cuts to state and local public services. There were bills to strip workers’ bargaining rights, slash pension benefits and privatize public sector jobs in state legislatures from coast to coast. After Indiana passed right-to-work-for-less legislation early this year, we faced similar proposals in Minnesota, New Hampshire and Ohio.

While we lost some legislative fights, we were successful in some key battles — thanks to an energized and powerful labor movement. AFSCME members and community supporters waged an unprecedented grassroots effort that effectively blocked Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s privatization agenda. And in Ohio, we defeated Senate Bill 5, which would have stripped public service workers of bargaining rights. We also won bills in Maryland extending collective bargaining rights to state employees not covered by existing law. And in Colorado, we stopped eight bills that would have altered or destroyed the Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA).

Despite these successes, however, we continue to face an onslaught of anti-worker legislation that’s harmful to middle-class working families.

The Onslaught from Lansing

Jonathan Drake
Jonathan Drake

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder and his legislative allies rammed through several anti-worker and anti-labor measures since he took office two years ago. The most radical was Public Act 4, signed into law after the 2011 session. Known as the local dictator law, it gives emergency financial managers — who are appointed by the governor and unaccountable to voters — sweeping powers to remove duly elected officials from office, suspend or disband elected bodies such as school boards or city councils, and even void contracts, including collective bargaining agreements. “I was outraged when I learned about this law,” says Jonathan Drake, a Wayne County vehicle inspection worker for the Department of Public Services and member of Local 101 (Council 25). “It takes away my right to have a say in our local governments and schools.”

In the months that followed the bill’s signing, Drake rallied at the state Capitol in Lansing and joined hundreds of activists gathering more than 220,000 signatures — more than the number required to put the repeal of the local dictator law on the November ballot.

With both chambers still in session, a number of anti-worker bills moved through the legislative process. They include bills that would shift costs for pensions and retirement health care benefits on to school employees and retirees; prohibit terms requiring contractors to enter into collective bargaining agreements with unions in public construction projects; and prohibit public employers from allowing payroll deduction for dues of union members. On the docket is a bill that prohibits raises and step increases after a contract has expired, even if the old contract is extended. The bill also requires that any increase in health care costs during this period be paid for entirely by members of the bargaining unit and forbids any retroactive payments for either of these employee losses. Moreover, the 2011-2012 state budget approved by the Legislature slashed revenue sharing to local governments by $100 million.

What Happens in Olympia

“There’s been an ongoing effort to repeal our defined benefit pension plan in favor of a defined contribution plan,” says Pat Miller, a construction inspector for the City of Renton and president of Local 2170 (Washington Council 2). A defined benefit plan guarantees the amount a retiree receives. A defined contribution plan is riskier, subject to the whims of the market and offers little to no security after retirement.

Pat Miller
Pat Miller

“We’re fighting hard to keep that and other pension rights intact because it’s going to hurt if these anti-worker politicians get their way,” Miller said. “That’s why we have to keep showing up in the state Capitol, showing our faces. We have to keep reminding legislators that we put them into office — that they are part of the solution, too.”

Miller knows how influential state and local politicians are in shaping policies that affect the daily lives of citizens and protect retirement for all workers.

“Decisions made on how resources should be spent have a profound impact on public safety, public health, justice and education and retirement security for all workers,” he says. “This is my home, my community. I have to care what happens in Olympia because bills are being debated that could profoundly change the lives of our neighbors, our families and friends and our children’s future.”

Shock and Anger in Madison

In Wisconsin, the bill Gov. Scott Walker rammed through the state Legislature wiped out the bargaining rights of 200,000 workers and cut the lifelines of the most vulnerable.

Missy Sorenson
Missy Sorenson

“I was shocked at the extreme way the current legislators pushed laws through that affected so many members,” says Missy Sorenson, a code enforcement officer for Green Lake County and president of Local 514 (Council 40). “My shock turned to anger and I thought, ‘It’s time to take a stand for workers.”

In the June recall elections, Sorenson, who is also a member of AFSCME’s Next Wave of young leaders, joined thousands of other activists in an unsuccessful bid to oust Walker and replace his legislative allies. She savored a victory, however, when two Walker allies were replaced. The state Senate changed hands, with a pro-worker majority back in control.

“Our members in many states saw first-hand why it’s important to be involved,” Sorenson adds. “Union busting legislation was jammed through. And now Walker is pushing to change our pension system. Our members deserve pro-worker legislators who have the people’s best interest at heart.”

To Sorenson, her top priority is regaining collective bargaining rights. “We’ve got to hit the pavement and change the political complexion of Madison.”

At 33, Sorenson is so fired up that she’s running for a seat in the Statehouse. “I bring fresh, innovative thinking,” she says. “I hope it inspires more young people to run and not consider a political office as something to do when they retire.”

Drake, Miller and Sorenson are dedicated activists who are working hard to change the outcomes in state legislatures. That means having a seat at the table. They know that statehouse races are critical to shaping our nation. And they know that state legislators make important decisions that impact the day-to-day lives of working families.

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