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South Dakota Workers Fight for Respect on the Job through AFSCME

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By Clyde Weiss Organizing

For a group of Public Works employees of the City of Custer, S.D., the decision to gain a voice on the job with AFSCME was motivated by an injustice: An employee was fired simply for speaking his mind at a City Council meeting.

Those workers, now members of AFSCME Council 59, are just starting to negotiate their first contract. Their goal, through collective bargaining, is to gain the respect due all public service workers in America. That means a contractual guarantee that management cannot fire them for voicing an opinion – even when it differs with those of an elected official.

They also want discipline rules that protect their rights, and good wages and benefits so they can raise their families and look forward to a decent retirement.

As members of a union, they know they can achieve those goals.

The City of Custer, near Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is a small community with a population of around 2,000. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer made an encampment here for an expedition of his infamous 7th Calvary in 1874.

Despite its size and remote location, the city is no different than New York, Los Angeles or any other municipality in at least one respect: Its public service workers want – and expect – to be treated fairly.

Knowing the solid reputation of AFSCME’s Rapid City Local 1031, seven employees contacted the union in February to talk about the possibility of joining, raising the termination of a maintenance operator a few months earlier as their reason to seek a contract that would protect their First Amendment right to free expression without fear of retaliation.

 “In South Dakota, we believe in the United States Constitution and civil rights,” said John Dumire, a waste water operator in the city’s Public Works Department. “When we began losing those rights in the workplace we decided to join AFSCME to preserve the freedoms that every employee should have at work.”

“AFSCME Council 59 has a long history of representing workers’ voices,” said Matt Miller, the council’s executive director. AFSCME was established in South Dakota in 1937 (in the City of Huron). It represents approximately 3,500 public service workers in nearly every major city and county in the state, and also in the largest school districts.

Yet, in such a small city at Custer, there were risks. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, so standing up for one’s values can be difficult. “You go to church with the mayor, your kids go to school with the kids of city council members,” Miller explained. “It’s much more difficult in a small community to form a union, because your neighbors and friends may not believe the same things you do.”

Still, the workers decided to stand up for themselves and for their colleagues to win respect on the job. They also understood that there were no guarantees – even with AFSCME at their back. “But we will fight for them, and will stand with them,” said Miller. “They decide their future.”

The employees each signed cards stating their desire to join AFSCME, but the city balked at recognizing their union. Through mediation with a state agency, an election was held on June 21. The group was finally recognized and contract talks began.

 “In the City of Custer, it’s not about wages or benefits – it’s about taking care of their city, it’s about believing in the city’s values and making sure their voice in that community is heard,” “said Miller. “Ultimately, it’s the idea that everybody deserves a voice in the workplace.”