Getting to Higher Ground

Public employees band together as attacks heat up.

Attacks on Wisconsin public employees continue to make national headlines, but the threats aren’t limited to this state alone. From Maryland to Kansas, AFT members and their unions are fighting a full slate of legislation and executive actions that would make a bad situation even worse for the workforce: efforts to erode negotiated pay increases, to institute  reckless tax cuts that shortchange vital public work, and to silence public employees’ ability to speak out against these and other dangers to good government.

It’s one of the most mean-spirited environments that public employees have faced in years, and unions aren’t taking it lying down. Across the country, members and activists are rising to the challenge and taking their case directly to lawmakers, the courts and the community.

“Governors and state policymakers have a clear choice,” AFT President Randi Weingarten recently wrote. “Push ideological policies to break the backs of unions, further disempower workers, have their deficit grow, have workers’ wages sink, and have their state ranked at the bottom for business and economic climate; [or] strengthen unions and workers’ rights, invest in public education and infrastructure, and create more good jobs.”

In Maryland, a bogus “bonus”  

Gov. Larry Hogan inaugurated his term by engaging with public employees in ways that throw dialogue and constructive action under the bus. The GOP governor is trying to portray a 2 percent salary increase—one that was negotiated and finalized last year by public employee unions and the state—as nothing more than a one-shot “bonus.” And Hogan has unilaterally moved to impose a  voluntary separation program that essentially would cut jobs, drain talent from public service and cost taxpayers dearly.

The AFT-affiliated Maryland Professional Employees Council is responding to these threats with decisive alternatives and aggressive outreach. The union, in concert with other labor groups, has developed a proposal for early retirement incentives that could save Maryland almost 10 times more than the governor’s plan—in just the first year. The union alternative keeps incentives where they belong: focused on employees nearing the end of their careers rather than on those who are relatively new to public service. In recent weeks, MPEC has been pressing its alternative through postcard campaigns and “lobby-night” visits to state legislators that draw participation from busloads of leaders and activists.

The savings that would accrue under labor’s alternative proposal for retirement incentives would make it unnecessary for Hogan to cut the pay increases that were negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement with the unions, MPEC President
Maria Mathias says. State workers already have absorbed more than $1 billion in sacrifices to help balance the budget, she stresses, and “the governor and legislators do not have a mandate to balance the budget with state employees’ salaries and benefits.”

Hogan is offering the “easiest, quickest, down-and-dirty approach” to incentives, says Lisa Levy, a property assessor in Baltimore County and secretary of the MPEC’s  executive board. The governor’s strategy will lead to permanently unfilled positions and a public service brain drain that almost certainly will hamper departments that generate revenue for Maryland, she warns.  

Bill Marker, an attorney with the state department of assessment and taxation, calls the governor’s voluntary separation program “a blunt instrument” that is sending a clear message to the workforce on how the administration plans to attack the state’s deficit: “We’re going to squeeze it out of public employees, who will be doing the same work with fewer people.”

When it comes to these attacks, MPEC members point out that their fight is the community’s fight as well. Hogan’s efforts to short-circuit negotiated raises for public employees is a plan that will ripple through the neighborhoods where public employees live and work, says MPEC building steward Lisa Banks. Like many public employees, Banks consistently supports local projects and nonprofits that are trying to strengthen Maryland communities and expand its middle class. But Hogan’s pay plan would “drastically impact my material contribution to the community at large and will affect my ability to continue my contributions.”

Kansas distractions, divisions

Gov. Sam Brownback is doubling down when it comes to attacks on the public sector, advancing a divisive agenda that distracts from the real challenges in Kansas—problems stemming from the governor’s brand of trickle-down economics, an “experiment” that has punched a nearly $300 million hole in the state budget.

Brownback and his allies in the GOP-controlled Legislature are pushing bills to eliminate due process and other rights that protect public employees when they speak out for quality services. Brownback is also working to prohibit public employees from bargaining anything beyond minimum wages and salaries while backing efforts to outsource services for the elderly, children, and the sick and disabled.

“These punitive new laws would only accelerate the current race to the bottom for jobs, working conditions, and wages in our state,” says AFT Kansas President Lisa Ochs. She stresses that the raft of regulations and bills share one common thread: They are all diversions from reckless policies that have turned Kansas and its productive workforce into the region’s weak sister when it comes to growing jobs and the economy—policies that have left the state with a projected deficit of almost $600 million in the next fiscal year while generating an average annual windfall of $20,000 for taxpayers who make up the state’s wealthiest 1 percent.

AFT members refused to be cowed by the governor’s tactics and refuse to be driven off message when it comes to talking about policies that compromise services and working conditions in the public sector. That was made clear at a state Senate hearing in March, where members urged lawmakers to reject legislation that would eliminate due process and deny public employees a chance to voice their ideas and concerns.

“It is vitally important that frontline staff have a voice in their working conditions,” says Laura Calhoun, who has worked in the state department of corrections for more than 18 years. “The past year has been one where Kansas correctional facilities have seen many inmate-on-officer attacks. Those of us who do these jobs, who put our safety on the line every single day, deserve input into our working conditions.

“We deserve the right to let management know what makes us vulnerable in the workplace, what unnecessary dangers exist that could be corrected,” Calhoun says. “If you deny us these rights, you are telling us—in no uncertain terms—that our lives and safety do not matter to this Legislature.”

Gloves off in Illinois

There has been no pretense of cooperation in Illinois, where Gov. Bruce Rauner in February signed an executive order blocking thousands of state employees from paying “fair share.” These are the fees that cover the collective bargaining and contract enforcement services that employees receive whether they are union members or not. Rauner also filed suit in federal court to have fair-share provisions declared unconstitutional.

When the state comptroller and state attorney general refused to implement this blatant abuse of power, Rauner responded by directing agencies to withhold an amount equal to fair share until the controversy is settled. On March 5, AFT affiliates in Illinois joined the state AFL-CIO and more than two dozen other unions—representing more than 40,000 state employees—to file suit in circuit court to invalidate Rauner’s action, charging that it violates state law and multiple collective bargaining agreements. The unions also filed a motion to dismiss Rauner’s federal suit.

Rauner also is pressuring the Legislature to put unions in the crosshairs by backing so-called right-to-work zones around the state. And he is calling for an unconstitutional gutting of public employee pensions, and advocating for budget cuts that would eliminate the social service net for foster children, the homeless, developmentally disabled, and mentally ill. He continues to attack the wages and fundamental rights of middle class families, while doling out significant raises to top aides and lucrative contracts to consultants.

The executive board of the Illinois Federation of Public Employees has developed “a plan that is being implemented to counter these acts of injustice,” says Thomas Kosowski, president of the AFT affiliate. “Educating our membership on the issues now facing us has been a positive force behind the uniting of our fee payers and fully paid members.”

“The men and women who do the real work of state government are first responders, nurses, caregivers and corrections officers. They plow snow, protect children, care for veterans and do many other tough, essential jobs that benefit all Illinois residents,” says Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael T. Carrigan. “Gov. Rauner’s political obsession with stripping their rights and driving down their wages demeans their service, hurts the middle class and is blatantly illegal.”


Public Employee Advocate, Spring 2015 Download PDF (2.29 MB)
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