Economic and political challenges are top issues for public employees

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While the economic situation in the states is not as dire this year as in the past couple of years, and revenue gaps are slowly shrinking, it will take years for state finances to get back on a solid footing. That reality, along with tremendous uncertainty about the federal budget, was a big topic of discussion for leaders of the AFT Public Employees division when they met earlier this month in Chicago.

During the meeting, Ed Muir from the AFT research and information services department presented an overview of the economy and the fiscal picture in the states. Unfortunately, even as job growth is improving in the private sector, employment in the public sector continues to shrink. One added challenge is that many governors are cutting taxes while eliminating breaks for those with the lowest incomes. Muir talked about the AFT's efforts to define the key issues, especially related to pensions and revenues, and present recommendations to create jobs, increase revenues, and reinvest in our infrastructure and public services.

Trinity Tomsic from Federal Funds Information for States told the council about the lack of progress in Congress on appropriations and budget issues, and explained what the impact of sequestration—the across-the-board cuts to federal agencies expected Jan. 1, 2013—might mean for states. The outcome depends in part on what happens in the November elections. About a third of the funding for state budgets comes from the federal government, so what happens in Washington, D.C., is crucial to public employees in the states.

A number of leaders, who are members of the national union's Public Employees program and policy council, talked about attacks on public employees that are taking place in their states in areas such as pensions, salaries, bargaining rights, healthcare and privatization. One obvious strategy to counter these attacks is to mobilize around the fall elections.

Council members discussed the need to come up with new ways to talk to members as well as the public about the value of public employees and the services they provide to taxpayers and the community.

The council met in conjunction with the annual legislative summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures. A delegation of AFT leaders attend the summit to educate state lawmakers on the union's perspective on issues ranging from funding for quality public services to healthcare to public employee pensions and workplace rights.

This PPC meeting was the first with Jill Cohenour, who is president of the Federation of Public Health and Human Services in Montana, as PPC chair. She takes over the position from Bruce Ludwig of the Alaska Public Employees Association. New members of the council include Wayne Bayer from the New York State Public Employees Federation, Scott Wasserman from Colorado WINS, Laila Mandour from the Administrative and Residual Employees Union in Connecticut, Nancy Hereford from the Alaska Public Employees Association, and Cynthia Wynn from the Wisconsin State Public Defenders Association.