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AFSCME Strong Works at Louisiana State Penitentiary

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AFSCME Strong Works at Louisiana State Penitentiary
Louisiana State Penitentiary Assistant Warden Shirley Coody (Family photo)

AFSCME’s campaign to build strength at its local representing Louisiana State Penitentiary workers not only added 118 employees to its membership but also paved the way to restoring full overtime pay at the nation’s largest maximum-security prison.

Last month, Local 3056 (Council 17) blitzed the workplace, meeting employees who were not yet AFSCME members. Wages and uncompensated overtime, stress and other concerns were discussed, one on one.

Local 3056’s drive exemplified AFSCME Strong, an organizing program whose core principle involves conversations between committed members and those who haven’t yet had the chance to join their union.

It’s tough enough to attract people to work at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP), in Angola.

“We’re way out in the middle of nowhere, so we’ve had a hard time getting staff to come in,” said Assistant Warden Shirley Coody, president of Local 3056. “We’ve been short for a long time. It’s just gotten really, really bad.”

Years ago, there were as many as 1,800 employees at the Angola, Louisiana, prison. Now employment is down to approximately 1,400.

Making matters worse, the stress of working in a maximum-security facility has taken its toll on those that remained on the job. Coody says some have been taking advantage of intermittent or regular leave through the Family Medical Leave Act, leaving even fewer corrections officers to do the work.

Then there’s a statewide budget crunch – a projected $440 million deficit, Gov. John Bel Edwards said in an April address to the legislature. Or, as Coody explained, if the department paid what it should pay each employee for overtime, “we’d be $2 million in the hole on salaries.”

Starting Feb. 8, the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections began cutting overtime wages and comp time in half. Members of Local 3056 decided to make their voices heard, and also launched an organizing drive to build power – an effort that increased membership by 118.

Bolstered by a more powerful voice, representatives of the now-expanded local met with Warden Darrel Vannoy on March 13 to discuss overtime and comp time. They showed management that the situation the corrections department created by cutting overtime and comp time was unsustainable.

“We gathered figures on overtime work, shortages and got everything together to show what a situation we were in, and how we were digging ourselves into a hole,” Coody said. “Everybody sees a problem, but nobody sees a solution.”

That is, until the union proposed one that made sense. 

In a March 21 letter to employees, Vannoy announced that the half-pay would be restored to full pay and that comp time would instead become overtime pay.

“Today, we will revert to normal overtime rules for overtime compensation,” he wrote. “We know that both before and during this time you have worked tirelessly to keep LSP a safe and secure environment in which to work. We could not have covered all of our security drops without you.”

With their victory in hand, Local 3056 continues to work with management to improve conditions for the workers. Its drive to sign up more members also continues.