Executive Director Reports

Together we’re meeting the challenge

Coronavirus pandemic tests us all

Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

2019 was a very good year for AFSCME members, a year of righting the wrongs done by one-time governor Bruce Rauner. None of us could have imagined it would usher in a 2020 like this one, with a global pandemic and steep economic decline; by any measure a very bad time.

This new crisis has made me think back on the four long Rauner years of incessant battle. We turned back assaults on our rights and our standard of living by a governor who wanted to annihilate the labor movement in Illinois.

We’d had fights long before Rauner, with other governors, mayors, county boards, sheriffs and more. But none had sought to use the whole power of the state against us, rounding up all but one Republican in the Illinois General Assembly to join his assault on workers’ rights, trying to strip the collective bargaining rights of every public employee, withholding contractually obligated step increases for state employees, seeking a way out of pension obligations, trying to cut benefits for injured workers and pushing to make Illinois cities and counties right-to-work zones.

We fought back in the courts, the streets, and ultimately at the ballot box. In the end, Bruce Rauner went down to defeat and we came back stronger than ever.

It’s worth remembering the ferocity of that four-year fight as we face an even greater challenge today—a global pandemic that has upended our entire world.

Our economy is in tatters. Our federal government is in disarray. Our communities have been traumatized. Our health is at risk—and increasingly, so are our jobs. Our family and friends may be sick, even dying. In some instances, we are the ones who are sick, and, yes, even dying. 

Yet here’s what I know, because I know the fight we’ve come through: When we’re threatened, AFSCME doesn’t run away. We stand up together and find ways to fight back. And now, in a moment of great peril, that is just what we’re doing. 

We’re an army of public service workers, doing our jobs with grit and determination. We’re maintaining public safety, assuring clean streets and safe water, repairing roads, helping those in need, protecting those at risk, caring for the sick, responding to emergencies and so much more.

Standing together as one strong union, we’ve been able to give voice to workers’ concerns and insist that they be addressed. We’ve ensured that tens of thousands of AFSCME members are able to work remotely—and safely—from home. Developed rotating schedules that reduce workplace interactions. Compelled employers to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and put appropriate safety protocols in place. Secured better leave benefits for employees stricken by the virus or caring for a loved one who is. Gotten access to testing so that employees in high-risk environments don’t unknowingly spread the virus to their families or coworkers. Improved health care coverage and mental health services. Expanded access to emergency child care. And in some cases, we’ve secured pay premiums that recognize the extraordinary risks that many employees are facing daily on the job.

In other words, we’ve come a long way in a very short time. But this fight is far from over. As Illinois begins to reopen, many AFSCME members will be called back to work, demands for public interaction will increase, social distancing will become more difficult to maintain and the virus could spread more aggressively. We will need to develop new safety measures that take into account such changing circumstances.

We need to keep up the fight on another front as well: protecting our jobs and the vital services we provide. The state of Illinois, its universities and local governments everywhere are hitting fiscal rock bottom. The massive loss of jobs in sectors such as air travel, hospitality, and retail is fast heading our way as tax revenues crater and expenditures needed to fight the pandemic continue to soar. Now layoffs in the public sector are starting as well. 

State and local governments where so many AFSCME members work need a massive infusion of federal funds—now. Without it, they’ll be driven to layoffs and cutbacks that will not only further damage the economy but hamper efforts to halt the virus and treat its victims. So we must act now to demand that Congress and the Trump Administration fund the front lines. 

At the same time, all of us have to keep fighting on our own front lines to ensure that every possible precaution is taken to protect our lives and health and to safeguard the communities we serve. It’s no easy task. But I’m thinking back to those four long years battling Bruce Rauner and his union-busting crusade. How we persevered through an unceasing torrent of assaults year after year, how we refused to be beaten down, how we defied the naysayers and surprised the pundits, how we rose up again and again. 

And that’s why I believe so strongly that however long it takes, we’ll soldier on, we’ll meet the challenge, and we’ll rise again, AFSCME Strong.