Public employees zero in on recruitment, retention and fighting to win

On July 14, delegates representing the Public Employees division and international guests came together at the AFT’s 87th convention in Boston to discuss the issues public employees face across the country and the world, to celebrate successes and to plan for the future.

Wayne Spence

Jill Cohenour, president of the Montana Federation of Public Health and Human Services, Local 4573, welcomed attendees and shared about her experience as the chair of the AFT’s Public Employees program and policy council. Healthcare, child care, inflation, technology, workplace safety and the future of telework are on the minds of public employees in Montana and beyond, she said, but her work with the AFT and the AFL-CIO energizes her for those fights. “By standing together, we will come out stronger and so will the communities that we support,” Cohenour said.

The AFT is launching a new initiative to confront one of the biggest challenges public employees experience: employers’ inability to recruit and retain workers. With the launch of its Recruitment and Retention Task Force, the Public Employees PPC will research and provide recommendations that will strengthen public employees’ ability to protect the common good. The task force’s goal is to develop and share contract language, legislative language and recruitment and retention tools that will help bring more people into public service and keep them there.

While they are faced with many challenges, public employees have the power to come together and fight for worker rights and for their communities—and when they fight, they win. President Wayne Spence and Vice President Randi DiAntonio of the New York State Public Employees Federation, Local 4053, shared about the big wins of PEF’s initiative, the Fund Our Future campaign for the state of New York.

Faced with shrinking budgets for public services, chronic understaffing and a significant shift from state employees to contractors, PEF leaders took inspiration from the AFT’s mission to develop their Fund Our Future campaign, now in its second year. The campaign aims to rebuild the public workforce after decades of underfunding by holding politicians accountable for the promises they’ve made. Workers have kept New York running despite significant challenges, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We don’t want any more pizzas; we want you to fund nursing. We want you to fund mental health,” Spence said.   

PEF aims to change the conversation so both politicians and the public know about the vital services public employees provide. This involves educating legislators while also training members to become ambassadors for their work. The issues public employees face and the work they do touch everyone's lives—but many people don't realize it. When members become ambassadors, they help their communities make those connections.

“Everybody knows someone with a mental health problem. Everybody has a family member or child with a disability,” DiAntonio said. Meeting those family members’ needs is “what we do, and we can get a lot of support if we organize and build community."

PEF’s Fund Our Future campaign has made significant gains in its first year, including a $3.6 billion increase in the governor’s state budget for agency operations for the first time in a decade and the incorporation of funding for several of the campaign’s requests.

PEF leaders hope their successes can inspire others to develop their own campaigns tailored to their needs, and they want to help make that happen. “If you’re a state federation, if you’re a small local, we want to hear from you,” Spence said. “Contact us and we’ll get this done.”

[Sharone Carmona/photo by Pamela Wolfe]