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AFSCME Members Call on Louisiana Lawmakers to Raise Wages. They Do.

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Louisiana public employees had not received a pay increase for nearly a decade. That changed in June after members of AFSCME Council 17 engaged in a successful campaign to persuade the Legislature and Civil Service Commission to raise wages.

A session of the Legislature that ended June 13 was the opening that AFSCME members needed to press their case for a 2 percent across-the-board raise for nearly all classified workers. It was a goal many thought was unachievable after the House of Representatives passed a budget plan that banned pay raises for state workers and substantially slashed spending for vital public services and health care.

Determined to stop and reverse the deteriorating level and availability of services, AFSCME members began in April to lobby lawmakers and members of the Civil Service Commission, each responsible for different aspects of their wage hike campaign. They called representatives and commissioners, testified at legislative hearings, wrote letters to the editor, spoke to the news media, circulated petitions and released a study on the enormous tax loopholes and breaks for big companies that should be ended to avoid spending cuts on public services.

These efforts, involving members statewide, focused attention on how low pay for new and experienced workers led to dangerous understaffing at correctional facilities. They also exposed how inadequate wages made it difficult to recruit new employees and prevent experienced workers from leaving for higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

Karen Myers, a sergeant-major at the B. B. Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie, LA., and a member of AFSCME Local 3686 (Council 17), testified June 6 during a hearing of the state Civil Service Commission. (Photo by Ira Arlook)
Karen Myers, a sergeant-major at the B. B. Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie, LA., and a member of AFSCME Local 3686 (Council 17), testified June 6 during a hearing of the state Civil Service Commission. (Photo by Ira Arlook)

At a Civil Service Commission hearing on June 6, members of Local 3686 (AFSCME Council 17) drove home their case:

“It is very difficult, if not impossible, to attract new people or to retain them at the current pay level,” testified Karen Myers, a sergeant-major at the B. B. Rayburn Correctional Center. “Younger people who come on now, if they come on at all, are using this job to keep them going while they look for a higher paying one, and one that's less stressful too. The minute they find it, they're gone. This is no way to build a reliable, skillful workforce.”

The next day, the commission voted to approve the 2 percent hike sought by AFSCME Council 17.

Another campaign involved a petition drive – led by Phillip Newton, vice-president of AFSCME Local 1695 – to get the state to release details of violent incidents at Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System, an understaffed facility where Newton worked as a correctional guard. The effort led Rep. Kenny Havard to get the state to release incident details. AFSCME then worked with Baton Rouge’s daily newspaper, The Advocate, to publicize the dangers of understaffing.

The 2 percent across-the-board pay raise for nearly all classified employees is funded and will go into effect Jan. 1, 2018, but the new Civil Service Pay formula, set to begin Jan. 2, is not currently fully funded in the state budget. To make sure that happens, AFSCME Council 17 is launching a revenue-raising campaign to urge lawmakers to close corporate tax loopholes that are draining the state’s coffers by millions.

Stopping cuts in public services, and a wage increase, were the immediate goals of Louisiana’s AFSCME members, but perhaps their most important achievement was seeing their own concerted actions and organizing efforts make the crucial difference against long odds.