Politically driven attacks on public employees may have set the tone for the 2014 AFT national convention, but they have not set the agenda.
AFT delegates addressed the major issues, from reckless cuts in government services to schemes in the statehouses and the courts to gut public employees’ basic rights. They did so in ways that made clear the union would not only mount a strong defense but play offense as well—fighting back and “fighting forward,” a union working not just to stand its ground but to carve out progress and create opportunity for all.
“Our job is to inspire, ignite and move millions to reclaim the promise of America,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in her keynote address. “Here’s how: Connect with community; be solution-driven; engage, empower and elevate our members—and, frankly, be a little badass.”
It’s a strategy that unquestionably comes into play this fall, when Americans will cast votes in 36 governors’ races, elections that will set the tone for state and local governments for years to come. Already, AFT members are getting involved in states such as Kansas, where one governor’s empty promises and reckless agenda have made him too extreme even for those in his own party, and Connecticut, where public employees are rallying behind an incumbent who pursued a path of respectful, constructive engagement with the public sector and helped his residents in the process.
Fighting back in Kansas and fighting forward in Connecticut are just two examples of how the strategy carved out last summer by AFT delegates is now very much in play for the coming political season.
Connecticut on course
The power of the governor’s mansion made national headlines in 2011, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker launched a scorched-earth attack on public sector workers and sparked a grass-roots rebellion among citizens in the state. Today, the phrase “we are not Wisconsin” carries a lot of currency in places like Connecticut, where members are working for the re-election of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, leaders who have shunned the extremist Walker model and set out to forge a professional relationship with public employees in the state.
Without exception, the Malloy-Wyman administration has supported workers’ right to collective bargaining. Working with unions, they have negotiated job security and benefit protections, extended health and pension agreements, expanded state employee whistleblower protections, worked with state-sponsored healthcare plans to reduce prescription drug costs and more. Under Malloy and Wyman, Connecticut has helped stabilize unfunded public pension liabilities and worked with the Legislature to make the tax code more progressive—asking corporations and rich residents to pay their fair share of income taxes.
Malloy is “the first governor in recent history who has put money into this state’s pension fund; the two previous governors raided it,” says Keith Inrig, a radiographer who recently retired from the University of Connecticut Health Center.
Inrig, who also was a first vice president for the AFT-affiliated University Health Professionals, has seen how residents across the state have benefited from reforms under Malloy-Wyman, like paid sick time and minimum-wage hikes. He remembers how public employees were asked to make some concessions while Connecticut was clawing back from the Great Recession and were told by the administration that this would not be a revolving door. “Gov. Malloy promised that he would not come back to state employees for more—and he’s kept that word.”
This spirit of cooperation has paid broad and meaningful dividends across the state, even during very dark days. The governor signed first-in-the-nation legislation for private sector workers who lack strong pensions and want to participate in a public retirement plan. Following almost unendurable pain in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings, Malloy established an assistance fund to help teachers, first responders, forensic analysts and other government workers called to action.
“Our members understand what’s at stake and what it takes to make sure Connecticut is ‘not Wisconsin,’ ” says AFT Connecticut President Melodie Peters. Affiliates in the state recently hosted a packed town hall meeting, where AFT leaders from Wisconsin detailed the pains and pressures they’ve faced under an extreme leader like Walker. The events galvanized rank-and-file interest and enthusiasm for making Connecticut’s upcoming election an opportunity to keep progress on course.
“We have been an exception to the stripping of workers’ rights that has been going on across the country,” says Peters. “That’s why we have united with the state’s labor movement to preserve our ‘Connecticut moment’ and back the re-election of Dannel Malloy for governor.”
An ‘adrenalin shot’ that wasn’t
The progress happening in Connecticut has precious little to do with the state of affairs in Kansas. There, incumbent GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, with support from deep-pocketed in-state supporters like the Koch brothers, has teamed up with a tea party-dominated legislature to muscle into law a raft of extremist bills concocted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Public sector downsizing, layoffs and forced overtime, workplace bullying and attacks on due process—all have been used unsparingly in the Kansas public sector in the past four years under Brownback. The governor also has helped enact tax policies that offer windfalls for wealthy corporations and individuals while imposing extra burdens on working Kansans—an agenda that Brownback promised would give the state’s ailing economy a “shot of adrenalin.” Today, however, Kansas is consistently near the bottom of the region when it comes to job growth and other measures of economic health.
Brownback’s poor performance also hasn’t escaped Wall Street’s notice. This year, Moody’s Investors Service made it more costly for the state to fund highway and other major projects when it downgraded the bond rating for Kansas. The ratings house cited “Kansas’ relatively sluggish recovery compared with its peers,” along with “an underfunded retirement system for which the state is not making actuarially required contributions,” as major factors driving the downgrade.
“What the governor called a ‘shot of adrenalin’ turned out to be a do-not-resuscitate order and a race to the bottom” for the state, says AFT-Kansas and Kansas Organization of State Employees President Lisa Ochs, and nobody knows that better than state and local public employees.
For example, recent employee surveys show growing concerns at correctional institutions, where soaring inmate-to-officer ratios and forced overtime have made the work more dangerous. Infrastructure work has gone ignored or delayed for months on end thanks to budget cuts, and the state contribution to education has plummeted to levels where the state Supreme Court was finally forced to step in, ordering Brownback and state lawmakers to heed the state constitution and fund education for all children in Kansas. It was a fiasco, an embarrassment to many Kansans, but still not enough to convince Brownback and his tea party allies in the Legislature from going on another ALEC-inspired jag.
On the last day of the 2014 session, the Legislature took up an appropriations bill that was crafted to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s school funding order. What ultimately passed—in the dead of night, with no public hearing— was a bill that stripped teachers of due-process protections they had held for more than a half-century. The poison pill was something Brownback wanted, and he wasted no time signing it into law.
It’s beyond the pale, too much for even the mainstream of Brownback’s party. This summer, more than 100 influential GOP leaders in Kansas announced they would be backing state Rep. Paul Davis in his bid to unseat Brownback—a decision that’s being applauded by Kansans like AFT member Tim Nissen, a correctional officer and part-time farmer who says that the quality of life that drew him to Kansas is being undermined by a governor “who seems more focused on the next step in his career” than on meeting the needs of his state.
“I’ll be a Republican till the day I die, but Brownback is just not supporting the state sector and he’s not supporting me, as a resident of this state,” Nissen says. Staffing at the correctional facility where he works has fallen to dangerous levels, says Nissen, who points to other indicators of community pain in the Brownback years: teachers paying more out of pocket for school supplies at the public school his grandchildren attend, tax changes that hurt small and part-time farmers, the loss of important jobs at a nearby Boeing plant.
“This is where I call home, and I’ve seen it slip in the last four years,” says Nissen, who is also a union leader at his work site. He says his colleagues are keenly aware of the pain caused under the current administration, and getting them interested and engaged in the governor’s race hasn’t been difficult. “When people are sick of the same policies, it’s pretty easy to motivate them.”