Executive Director Reports

Out of many, we make one strong union

The coronavirus may be our toughest fight

Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

Tough times test even the strongest bonds. A union’s strength is in its solidarity. For us in Illinois, these aren’t empty words. We’ve fought and won the hardest battles because we’ve stood together, no matter how stiff the opposition or how long the odds.

Think of those in both political parties who tried to wipe out the pension plans that are essential to our retirement security. Along with our allies in the We Are One Illinois coalition, we fought them all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court and won, twice.

Think of Bruce Rauner, who tried to take away our bargaining rights, impose his demands, even wipe out our union. But we won every legal battle, gained legislative support for restoring lost wages and drove him out of office.

Our success in those fights and others was rooted in the unity and loyalty that are the hallmarks of our union. Members from one end of the state to the other came together to participate in lobby days and call-in days, rallies and marches. We knew that winning wasn’t about hot rhetoric and empty threats; it was about having the facts to back up our case, being on solid legal ground and garnering public support for the rightness of our cause.

Now we face the coronavirus pandemic, an opponent none of us saw coming. In many ways it may be our toughest fight, and it’s not over yet.

COVID has brought challenges in waves. From the earliest days of the pandemic, our union’s focus has been on protecting members’ health and preventing the spread of this deadly virus. Too often we had to battle tooth and nail just to get appropriate PPE and safety protocols put in place. Yet for all the progress we made, we still saw thousands of members become sick with COVID and some who died from it.

That’s why when vaccinations against COVID became available early this year, we launched an all-out effort to encourage everyone to get vaccinated. The vaccines are safe, highly effective and the best way to protect ourselves, our families and our communities from illness, hospitalization and death.

As a result of this combination of effective workplace safety measures and widespread vaccinations, by spring the numbers of COVID cases in our state—and in our workplaces—had decreased dramatically.

After more than a year of social isolation and social distancing—of remote union meetings and postponed union gatherings—we began to reconnect with a wide array of picnics, parties, parking-lot cookouts, movie nights and days at fun parks.

After all those months of struggling to negotiate contracts via Zoom, lobby legislators via text, and hold virtual pickets, we were back at the real bargaining table and out on the streets when necessary with picket signs waving. Things were definitely looking up.

Then along came the Delta variant! The number of COVID cases began to steadily rise again. Hospital ICUs once again began to fill up, and sadly, the numbers of deaths increased too—overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated.

In response to these developments, employers across the country—both in the public and private sectors—began to turn to employee vaccination requirements as an essential tool in a multi-faceted COVID containment strategy.

These increasingly common efforts by employers to require, or mandate, that employees get vaccinated is without a doubt an issue that AFSCME members feel strongly about. And some of those strong opinions are very different from one another.

But a fundamental aspect of our union is that every member has a right to be heard. Solidarity does not mean that we always agree. But it does mean that we hear each other out and respect each other.

For instance, many of our members work in public health departments at the local or state level; they have been working tirelessly for months to promote the vaccine. Others work in nursing homes which came under a nationwide vaccination mandate from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. And many of our retirees feel passionately about the importance of getting vaccinated because they are seniors who are at especially high risk.

On the other hand, many members still have questions or concerns about the vaccines. Other members have medical or religious grounds on which they object. Still others simply don’t like the employer telling them what to do.

All of this is why our union has been clear from the outset: Rigid, universal and punitive vaccine mandates are the wrong way to go. Flexibility, education and encouragement are the better path. As we go to bargaining tables to discuss the details of vaccine requirements with various employers all over the state, those are the principles that guide us.

Within Council 31, one of our greatest strengths is our diversity. We are from cities, towns and rural areas. We are every race, gender and age. We work in many different jobs providing a vast array of different public services. That’s what makes us uniquely effective in all the fights we take on.

In other words, the key to our success is transforming our differences into an asset. Out of many, we make one strong union. That’s how we beat the pension-slashers. That’s how we kept our numbers up when the forces behind the Janus case tried to undermine us. That’s how we retired Rauner.

Our opponents would love nothing more than for us to be distracted and divided. But I know we can overcome any challenge ahead if we come together, in unity, AFSCME strong.