Executive Director Reports

Reconnecting will strengthen solidarity

AFSCME members are ready to rebuild together

Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

Let’s get together and feel all right. That’s the refrain of an old Bob Marley song that’s been ringing in my ears a lot lately. It’s more or less the opposite of how we’ve been living for the past year of this global coronavirus pandemic.

In fact, the essence of the strategy to combat the virus has been social distancing—stay six feet apart, don’t hug or shake hands—and wearing a mask over your face (leaving you barely recognizable even to close friends). In other words, let’s not get together. So, for the most part, we haven’t.

Not surprisingly, we haven’t felt all right at all. Some of us have felt anguished as we’ve watched friends or family die isolated and alone in hospitals or nursing homes, unable to hold their hands or whisper final goodbyes.

Many of us have been sickened with the virus, sometimes left with a range of debilitating symptoms including heart damage, muscle weakness, headaches and even psychosis.

All of us have had to radically alter our life routines, mostly not for the good. We’ve had younger children trying to learn remotely at home; teenagers missing out on sports, social activities and graduation ceremonies; adult children moving back home because they lost their jobs or their colleges closed down. We’ve had to defer medical treatment, cancel vacation plans, even avoid going to the grocery store.

The need to maintain social distancing hit the labor movement especially hard. Labor solidarity, after all, is the inverse of human isolation.

Social connections are what unions seek to create every day. Union stewards are vital social links, connecting employees in their work area. Local union meetings regularly provide opportunities for members to come together to share concerns and afterwards a few beers. Union picket lines and rallies enable working people to feel the strength that grows from that unity.

Over the past year, AFSCME Council 31 and local unions throughout the state have worked steadfastly to sustain those bonds. First and foremost, we’ve organized through every means possible to make sure that employers put in place the equipment and protocols needed to keep union members safe on the job. And we’ve worked to forge new agreements that provided for expanded time off for those who contract COVID as well as those with additional family responsibilities.

We’ve used the remote tools available to us to hold local union meetings, conduct steward trainings, provide members with the facts about COVID, and hold labor-management meetings. We’ve even managed to hold contract negotiations remotely—and continued to win wage increases and job improvements at that virtual bargaining table.

We’ve found ways to help and support each other, whether we’re working together in high-risk situations like correctional facilities or working remotely from home, rarely laying eyes on each other.

Last summer and into the fall we kept up those connections through outdoor activities. But once winter came, we were forced to into greater isolation. It hasn’t been easy to maintain the solidarity that is so essential to our progress. In fact, it’s often been hard and frustrating. But we did all that we could—and while those bonds may be frayed, they have not been broken!

Now with the advent of COVID vaccinations—and the arrival of spring—we see the potential to reconnect and rebuild. We’re making plans to get together, whether at meetings, pickets, picnics or parties.

We know that social distancing is still needed—and masks too! But we also know that as more and more of us get vaccinated, those restrictions will gradually be reduced. Already the CDC has determined that vaccinated friends and family can get together, even indoors, without distance or masks. That can go for our union family too.

That’s why it’s so important that every union member gets vaccinated as soon as possible.

Many of us are in very tough contract negotiations that will require direct action—and we’re going to be prepared to take it.

Others are faced with measures in the current session of the General Assembly—as well as city councils and county boards across Illinois—that can help or harm us. So we’re going to need to rev up our grassroots lobbying program too.

No doubt we have a long way to go before we will return to the electrifying energy of a packed rally or the easy pleasures of a party at a crowded union hall. But we are most definitely on our way. We can all do our part to strengthen union solidarity by acting now to get vaccinated and encouraging our coworkers, family and friends to do the same.

And when those days finally arrive, we will all be able to get together—and feel all right!