More than 25 AFT members and staff gathered in Denver in February for a week of intensive training in member organizing and mobilization conducted by the AFT Public Employees division. As part of the program, the participants—who came from public employee affiliates around the country—helped Colorado WINS with its own campaign focused on respect and higher wages for the 31,000 state employees it represents.
The participants took part in classroom-based training in the morning, organized work-site meetings in the afternoon and visited prospective members at home in the evening. In a right-to-work state, Colorado WINS has to put a lot of effort into organizing new members.
“Going out into foreign turf can be very uncertain,” says Renne’t Sarbu, a contract specialist with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services and an activist in MEA-MFT, the state union federation. “But I found out they have the same issues in Colorado as we do in Montana: low pay, managers who do what they want, no raises, and workers who are expected to do more. We also share the same goals, including strengthening the membership, better contracts and keeping members involved all year long.”
One eye-opening fact about state employees in Colorado: Thousands of them make well under $15 per hour, which unions and other activists have targeted as a living wage in the national “Fight for $15” campaign. In fact, many of them make less than $10. Among this group are custodians, dietary aides and LPNs.
Colorado’s economy has improved, along with the national economic recovery, but raises for state employees have continued to lag, says Colorado WINS Executive Director Tim Markham. “The state is losing employees to the private sector. We need to step up and recognize the value of our public workers at correctional facilities, veterans’ homes, transportation facilities and centers for the developmentally disabled across the state. Their work matters to all of us, and it should be rewarded fairly.”
For white-collar workers, the issue of respect focuses less on salary and more on things like professionalism, flexibility, trust and overtime pay. Participants at the training were divided into teams that targeted both blue- and white-collar employees. By week’s end, the participants had attempted contacts with more than 700 Colorado state employees through the home visits and work-site meetings.
Sarbu says the training was among the best she has ever attended and now back home in Montana, she’s already using some of what she learned. One strategy she found especially useful was charting and mapping. “It’s a great tool to visually see where the weak areas and strong areas are.”