Executive Director Reports

Let’s keep forging a better future

 Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

Power and progress come with collective bargaining

As I write this column, word has arrived that the charter school teachers in Chicago who’ve been on strike against Chicago International Charter School for nine days have reached a tentative agreement that will dramatically improve their standard of living, as well as learning conditions for their students.

Teacher wages will now rise to the level of those in Chicago Public Schools, a 35 percent increase over the term of the contract, and their maximum class size will be reduced to 30 students. There are lots of other improvements as well in this, their first union contract, all the fruit of a willingness to form a union just a few years ago and to walk out when their employer stonewalled them at the bargaining table.

When the charter school “movement” started several decades ago, its proponents touted charters as “union-free” educational settings, claiming students would thrive without rigid “union rules.” In fact, students have seldom done better in such privatized settings, while teachers ended up doing a whole lot worse. That’s all begun to turn around as teachers at more and more charter schools in Chicago have formed unions and dis- covered the power and progress that come with collective bargaining.

Their experience is far from unique. Frontline caregivers at community disability agencies across Illinois have found that too often their nonprofit employers don’t have the wherewithal or the will to ensure that workers receive a living wage. That’s why more than 5,000 employees at some 20 residential programs for individuals with disabilities have become part of AFSCME over the past two decades, with employees of Willowglen Academy joining our ranks just in the past six months. Working together, these caregivers have been able to convince state legislators to provide additional funds to raise their wages by more than 10 percent over the past two years, and this year they’ll be pressing for more.

Or take the Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) in Monroe County who just negotiated their second union contract after becoming part of AFSCME. They joined with other EMTs in Illinois and across the country to improve their working conditions. Or the 300 employees of the DuPage County nursing home who realized the only way to take on repressive management tactics was to come together in a union and who just a few months ago joined the AFSCME ranks.

Looking beyond our own state, we’ve seen tens of thousands of teachers in states like Oklahoma, Virginia and Arizona go out on strike to demand fair pay. And right now, due in large measure to AFSCME’s efforts, legislators in Nevada are finally poised to enact a law that gives public employees the right to collective bargaining. Thousands of state employees there have already signed union cards and are eagerly awaiting the day they can be assured of the protections and benefits of a union contract.

All this growth in membership and activism has continued, even intensified, in the wake of the US Supreme Court ruling in the Janus case last June which was widely predicted to herald the demise of public sector unions.

Far from it. The great majority of employees readily saw the Janus case, which barred fair share fees in the public sector, for what it is: a power grab by the wealthy elite in our country who want to shrink government at all levels and drive down the wages and benefits of government workers.

We saw their strategy all too clearly here in Illinois with the election of Bruce Rauner. He put a big target on the backs of public employees and pushed relentlessly to take away union rights, cut pensions and other benefits, and drive down wages.

And we also saw what happens when workers have unions and the organized strength to fight back against such attacks. Rauner was never able to strip employees of a single hard-won union right. He was never able to cut pension benefits. He was never able to drive down wages. And he was never able to break the spirits of the hundreds of thousands of public employees across the state whom he did his best to bash and belittle.

Now Bruce Rauner is gone, but we’re still here! Rauner’s buddies won the Janus case at the US Supreme Court, but we’re still growing and getting stronger.

These developments have confounded and frustrated the union-haters in our country—the ultra-wealthy crowd that’s pumping millions of dollars into trying to get employees to drop out of their unions. Instead, thousands of former feepayers stepped up and became full union members, recognizing that we can’t maintain the unity and strength that have carried us so far unless everyone contributes to building the union.

Let’s keep that going. Let’s keep on making clear that we’re AFSCME Strong and we’re not backing down. Let’s keep on forging a better future for ourselves, our families and our communities.