by Michael Stewart, Local 328 Vice President
One of the most common concerns I hear as a Local 328 member leader is “I don’t like that our union is involved in politics!” or “I don’t like that our union endorsed a particular candidate.” As much as we would like to avoid politics and the difficulties and polarization that come with it, the truth is that politics is a vital part of what our union does. Not because we choose it to be, but for simple survival and to meet the needs of our members. Examples of how politics on all levels directly affects working families (whether union or non-union) are numerous.
Since the elections of 2010, we have witnessed the targeting of public-employee unions by then newly elected governors and legislatures across the country. Wisconsin and Iowa stand as stark examples of what is at stake for the working class when we fail to directly take on the political threats to our wages, benefits and right to collectively bargain. Anti-worker legislators and governors swept into office in both states. As soon as they were sworn in, they jammed through, often without so much as a public hearing, bills that eliminated fair-share fees, forced yearly recertification of unions, barred automatic dues payments and severely limited or eliminated collective contract bargaining. How has this affected the working families in these areas?
In an article for The Atlantic about the effects of Act 10 in Wisconsin, Alana Semuels discusses how the reduction in union power has affected the middle class. For example, one married couple (both teachers) saw their combined wages decrease by 11%. Overall, teachers have seen an 8% decrease in total compensation. Some teachers have had to take second jobs or leave the field all together. This worsened an already growing teacher shortage in the state. Public employees across the state have suffered similarly. A restriction on the right to collectively bargain wage increases so that they only match the rate of inflation has reduced the upward pressure on wages in the private sector, leading to a flattening of wages and an increase of income inequality within the state.
Oregon AFSCME has a robust and active political department consisting of paid staff and volunteer member leaders, with a very successful PEOPLE program that helps fund our work. As such, we have been mostly successful in helping elect pro-worker legislators and defeating anti-worker candidates and initiatives. I say “mostly” because, despite our union’s best efforts, we have seen the ugly face of anti-worker politics within our own state. In Lane County, where many employees’ wages were as much as 25% below market, management demanded that employees pay more for health insurance and retirement benefits; couple with anemic wage increases, this would have amounted to a decrease in employees’ take-home pay. These unfair demands were not due to a lack of money on the part of the county, but to the political philosophy of a few of the commissioners, one of whom is a Scott Walker protégé. Yamhill County narrowly escaped striking over many of the same demands and conditions of the Lane County strike.
With so much of the well-being of our members and our members’ families riding on the policies and legislation of our governor, legislators, county commissioners and other elected officials, it would be negligent for AFSCME not to be involved in determining who will write policies and legislation as well as helping shape the content of these policies. In my next article I will detail the process used by our union when we endorse a pro-worker candidate, how our fellow members educate elected officials about the work we do and how their legislation impacts that work and how we stay effective despite opposition.