Executive Director Reports

Diversity, solidarity are keys to AFSCME's success

Union efforts make a difference at State Capitol

Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

The Illinois General Assembly has wrapped up its spring session—a strange amalgam of in-person debates and votes at the Capitol and testimony on bills in committee provided remotely, with reporters and lobbyists largely barred from the premises.

Under the circumstances, it’s amazing that anything got done at all. But it was actually a very productive session with some good outcomes for AFSCME members. 

The FY 22 state budget adopted in the final days of the session essentially reflected the plan Governor Pritzker put forward back in February. Rejecting Republican calls for state employee furlough days or pay freezes, it maintains current staff levels (adding staff in IDES and DCFS), funds employee pay raises, and projects no layoffs. 

The budget includes the full employer contribution to the state’s pension funds, repayment of a loan from the federal government, additional funding for education at all levels and maintenance of the state’s funding to local governments.

Moreover, thanks to AFSCME’s grassroots lobbying campaign, it includes funding for a raise of at least $1.50 an hour for low-wage frontline caregivers in nonprofit community disability agencies funded by the state.

In other words, it is a fair and balanced budget—one that will demonstrate to the bond rating agencies that Illinois is getting back on track.

There was progress on a number of other fronts as well, both in passing bills that will benefit AFSCME members and in defeating those that would have caused harm.

Most notable in the latter category was the total blockade we erected against a bevy of Republican-backed bills to slash or even eliminate public-employee pensions. Working with others in the labor movement, AFSCME lobbyists made sure that none of those saw the light of day.

And in a major feat, we convinced sponsors of a sweeping criminal justice reform bill to remove a provision that would have taken collective bargaining rights away from police officers. We made the case that such an assault on basic workplace rights for one group of workers could lay the basis for other workers being stripped of their rights going forward.

Our union was also successful in blocking action on a measure that  would have undermined qualified immunity for public employees, reversing a longtime legal precedent that severely restricts civil lawsuits against individual employees for actions taken in the line of duty. And there’s more. We helped stop bills that would have restricted voting rights, privatized work in the Illinois Department of Human Services and required monitoring of certain employees in the Illinois Department of Corrections.

We were able to accomplish all this and more because we are a statewide union with occupational and geographic diversity unlike any other in Illinois. There are AFSCME members in every corner of the state. And we come from a wide range of backgrounds and occupations—librarians, nursing home workers, sanitation workers, correctional officers, lawyers, park rangers, maintenance workers, clerical workers and so many more.

Diversity is our great strength. That wide range of locations and vocations means we can reach out to legislators across the state and be heard. When there’s an issue affecting members in one part of the state, AFSCME can go to legislators in other parts of the state for help, even when voters in their district are not directly impacted. And if there’s an issue only affecting AFSCME members in one type of work, our union can engage even those legislators for whom the issue itself may not be important. 

And we don’t have to go it alone. AFSCME’s lobbying acumen and commitment to solidarity across the labor movement means we can help forge strong labor coalitions—as we have done to defend pension benefits and fight for tax fairness—and we can count on the backing of the Illinois AFL-CIO when the going gets tough. 

That’s why grassroots member lobbying is so critical. Phone calls, emails and witness slips make clear that the Council 31 legislative team at the State Capitol has an army on the ground in legislators’ districts.

And that’s why our PEOPLE program is so important. Building a strong political action fund helps to make our union a potent force for a better life, not just for our own members, but for all working families in Illinois. 

Of course, we don’t win every legislative battle. But we’re in every fight that matters to our members. Sometimes it’s a matter of months, sometimes it can take years, but we don’t back down and we don’t give up if there’s even of the slimmest chance of prevailing. 

So prevail we very often do. And we will continue to do so if we continue to build the strongest possible union on every single front. The pandemic may have slowed things down for a time, but we’re coming back now and ready for all the challenges yet to come.