Making the Connection
Public Employee Advocate
When affiliates work with the community, the union benefits and so do those its members serve.
THE MESSAGE WAS CLEAR and simple, and Jennifer Palinko took it to heart: Unions and their members should work with the community and other allies to advocate for high-quality public services, the needs of those who depend on those services and the rights of those who provide them.
That was the mantra Palinko heard throughout the AFT’s Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference in Los Angeles in October. She returned to Anchorage, Alaska, energized and determined to organize a day of action for the Alaska Public Employees Association affiliate she heads up, the Anchorage Council of Education.
“I see it as an opportunity to bring out the community and talk to them about what our members do. It’s an opportunity for us to engage with the community,” Palinko says of the National Day of Action to Reclaim the Promise planned for December.
It’s a mistake for public employees to take for granted that citizens recognize the value and importance of the work they do—and how it enhances their quality of life. Rather than hope the public understands and appreciates the value of their work, public sector workers need to be proactive in communicating directly with those who benefit from it—the general public.
Federation of Franklin County (Ohio) Children Services Employees President Beth Earl understands this. Her members are part of a speakers’ bureau set up by the county. “We’ve had members speak at schools and hospitals about the services we provide,” she says. “People see the union, as well as the agency we work for, in a different light when we do this.”
This kind of community engagement is a priority for every AFT constituency, as the union seeks to reclaim the promise of high-quality public services, schools and healthcare. Those affiliates that have already taken the initiative and reached out to the community have discovered that many community members share their goal of working together to create a society that cares for the needs of all of its citizens. That has certainly been the case in New York state, where the Public Employees Federation and the United University Professions (representing faculty at the State University of New York) have joined with faith leaders, healthcare professionals, elected officials and others to stop the downsizing, privatization or possible closure of the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.
The coalition has rallied, lobbied state legislators and conducted informational picketing in order to save the hospital, which serves 400,000 patients a year. “We cannot lose the services of this hospital because there is a huge need in the community, especially for the immigrants and underprivileged,” says Andrea Harry, a PEF member and a registered nurse at the hospital.
Because union members and their families are an integral part of the community, it only makes sense for the labor movement to have a role in ensuring the community’s needs and perspective are consistently taken into account, Connecticut Administrative and Residual (A&R) Employees Union President Joe Piechta says. In August, his local supported a labor coalition’s drive to purchase school supplies for students’ backpacks, and in October and November, A&R worked with community partners and other unions to sponsor a food drive to help needy families.
“We have to build an awareness that we’re all in this together—unions and the community,” Piechta says. “When we do that, I think we’ll see a lot less union-bashing.”
The Federation of Franklin County Children Services Employees has partnered with First Book, a national nonprofit organization that distributes new books to kids who can’t otherwise afford them, to forge a stronger connection to the families its members serve. Through the program, the Franklin County local has given thousands of free books to children and stocked the book shelves in the buildings where its members work. “Many of the families we work with don’t have books in their homes, so being able to do this has helped them see that the union’s commitment to them goes beyond what our members do for them every day,” says Earl, whose local is made up largely of social workers.
An appreciation for partnerships
The need for coalition building and community outreach often revolves around a clear and present danger. In Kansas earlier this year, a series of legislative proposals threatened a broad swath of labor and community groups. “The need to build bridges and work together to counter these initiatives became obvious to everyone,” AFT Kansas President Lisa Ochs recalls. The state’s progressive community was under attack by right-wing legislators whose agenda included cuts in funding for public schools and public services, tax increases for the middle class, tax cuts for big business, and efforts to suppress the voting rights of tens of thousands of Kansans.
Ochs says the blatant overreach on the part of the conservative legislators “brought us together like never before. We knew we had to sit down and talk about developing a coalition.” That meeting of minds brought together, among others, Latino organizations that saw a threat to immigrant rights, senior citizen advocates worried about retirement security, and unions seeking to protect bargaining rights.
Last February, the newly minted Kansas coalition rallied at the state Capitol in Topeka where speaker after speaker, including clergy, nurses, teachers and state employees, spoke out against the extreme legislative agenda. “The governor and legislative leaders need to know that what they’re doing will not happen in some backroom where nobody notices,” Ochs told the rally.
Another rally speaker, Resa Boydston, a mental health technician at the Kansas Neurological Institute and a member of the AFT-affiliated Kansas Organization of State Employees, said she was concerned that Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposed cuts would only increase the high turnover rate where she works.
The pushback by the determined coalition of Kansans resulted in the defeat of several anti-taxpayer, anti-worker bills. It also energized AFT Kansas and the rest of the state’s labor movement, which now has a deeper appreciation for the role partnerships can play in advancing a common agenda.
Ochs has since been asked to speak at rallies and meetings of some of the organizations in the coalition. “We’ve got to support their rallies and issues with the same energy as they show in supporting ours,” the AFT Kansas president says.
The City Union of Baltimore has yet to face a crisis like the one that mobilized public employees and others in Kansas, but that hasn’t stopped CUB’s new president, Yvonne Rice, from beginning to identify possible allies in the community. Toward that end, Rice attends community meetings just to hear what the priorities and concerns are.
CUB represents a cross section of Baltimore City employees, and Rice believes it’s critical that people know how her union’s members contribute to the well-being of the city and its residents. “If we don’t let the community know what our members do on their behalf, no one else will,” she says.
A&R President Piechta wants to make community outreach an ongoing part of the Connecticut union’s work. He’d like to restart a program that highlighted the essential work done by the union’s members.
“Being actively engaged with the community says that we care about what’s going on in our communities and our neighborhoods, and that we have a role to play in helping people see beyond what we do in our jobs,” says Piechta, who believes when state workers are active in their communities, “it makes it easier for the union and its members to raise awareness about the work we do and to show people that their tax dollars are well-spent.”
— ROGER S. GLASS