Local 517 Washington County

50,000 Stronger

by Olivia Sandbothe

When the going gets tough, AFSCME gets organized. And in the throes of the right wing’s relentless attacks on labor and public service workers, we are organizing like never before with a campaign to grow the union by 50,000 members this summer.

To accomplish this goal, the union is recruiting and will train 800 volunteer member organizers (VMOs) from across the country. The 50,000 new members will come from the ranks of their co-workers who are not now union members.

“The times demand that we do this,” said AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders. “The people who hate unions are passing bad ideas back and forth with a vengeance.”

The latest anti-worker salvo from the right is a legal case called Harris v. Quinn that was argued before the Supreme Court in January.

Harris v. Quinn originated in Illinois and its original focus was whether or not that state’s home care providers may organize and bargain collectively. But as the suit rose to the Supreme Court, a group called the National Right to Work Foundation, which has worked for decades to bust unions, seized it as a chance to strike a blow to all public employees across the country.

The Foundation is, in effect, asking the Supreme Court to wipe out collective bargaining for public employees.

This case is being decided at a time when anti-worker policies, promoted by corporate tycoons and the elected officials they control, thinned labor’s ranks to just above 11 percent of the American workforce. That’s the lowest it’s been in nearly a century.

Most of that shrinkage occured in the private sector, where the portion of private sector workers belonging to a union is barely 7 percent. (Private sector union membership peaked at around 35 percent in the 1950s.)

With union density now highest in the public sector, the right wing focused its sights on public sector unions such as AFSCME.

“We are the last line of defense for working families,” Saunders said. “The Koch brothers and the Scott Walkers and the Rush Limbaughs know this, and they are not just trying to hurt us, they are trying to end us.”

Regardless of the outcome of Harris v. Quinn, it is clear that we need to bring more new members into our ranks in order to speak out with a stronger voice to defend public services and the men and women who provide them.

It won’t be easy. But this isn’t the first time that AFSCME overcame hard times through the power of organizing.

In 2011 the Oklahoma Legislature eliminated municipal employees’ right to bargain. Many union members in the state were ready to give up and let their contracts expire – but in the small town of Enid, the members of Local 1136 decided to form an organizing committee instead. By rallying their coworkers and growing the membership of the local, they ran a successful referendum campaign to restore bargaining rights in the city charter. They talked to their neighbors about the services city employees provide and the town voted overwhelmingly to support their right to a collective voice through bargaining.

There are stories like this all over the country, showing the power of internal organizing in the face of relentless anti-worker attacks. All we need to do is ask our coworkers to stand beside us. If you are a public employee who is not yet part of AFSCME, it is now essential that you join with your colleagues to become a union member.

If you are an AFSCME member, see if you can sign up a colleague who isn’t yet a member. Talk to the leaders at your local to learn more about signing up new members. If you would like to become a member organizer, contact your staff representative or your local AFSCME office.

We are stronger when we all stand together. With a unified voice we can protect our pay and working conditions. With your help, we can be “50,000 Stronger.”

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