Public employee unions are fighting to save quality services in the standoffs between state lawmakers and governors
As states prepared to begin a new fiscal year this summer, dozens faced budget shortfalls. To close the gap, public employees found themselves fighting governors and state lawmakers, urging the leaders to keep them on the job providing important, high-quality public services. The continued attack on public workers is inspiring them to stand their ground and push back.
Funding in Alaska (a state that relies on gas and oil revenues for its general fund) was hit hard by the drop in oil prices this year. The Republican-led Legislature passed a budget, but there wasn’t enough money to fund operations in the budget. Gov. Bill Walker warned the legislators that the state government might have to shut down if the budget was not fully funded, but the lawmakers didn’t budge. Their refusal to fund a budget resulted in the state sending 10,000 notices to state employees warning of the possibility of layoffs on July 1, the beginning of a new fiscal year.
“I’ve never seen our Legislature grandstand” before and be so stalwart. “It was a true standoff,” says Lura Noss, who works for the state department of administration and is a member of the Confidential Employees Association, which is an affiliate of the Alaska Public Employees Association.
Noss was one of thousands of APEA members who were part of the union’s effort to mobilize members to fight the budget impasse. Many members made phone calls, sent emails to their state lawmakers, wrote letters to newspaper editors and took to social media to speak out about the budget fight. The APEA also worked closely with the state AFL-CIO and other unions.
Many of the union’s 8,400 active and retired members were involved in the effort to sway the lawmakers, says Pete Ford of the APEA. “It was a roller-coaster campaign, but our members carried us” over each and every bump in the ride, says Ford. “They wanted to send the message that a contract is a contract, and you have to keep your word to state employees.”
“Our legislators are well-known to our members,” says Gary Miller a retired computer programmer for the state and member of the Retired Public Employees Association. “We reminded them that we have children and grandchildren who are public employees,” and called on the lawmakers to support funding contracts for public employees.”
A move to break the union
Alaska runs thanks to its state employees, says Fran Polumsky, a University of Alaska Southeast professor and retired physical education teacher who is a member of United Academic Adjuncts. The local, which is an APEA affiliate, had just ratified its contract when the budget battle broke out. Its members were actively involved in getting the message out to people about what was happening with the budget. “We negotiated these contracts in good faith, Polumsky says, “and then the other party didn’t want to hold up its end of the bargain.”
Polumsky saw the budget battle as “a huge move to break the union.”
“We were down to the wire, but the member involvement was critical,” says Polumsky. “For adjuncts, it’s tough at times because we are so spread out. But people knew how hard we worked to get a really good contract.”
After being bombarded by phone calls and emails, lawmakers decided to hold a special session on the budget, moving it from Juneau to Anchorage. Noss, who lives in Anchorage, used the change of venue to her advantage. She began by making daily lunchtime visits to the building that housed the lawmakers’ offices and mobilized her fellow union members to accompany her.
“I wanted to have a physical presence to counter the attitude that many lawmakers had,” says Noss. They thought “that we didn’t care.”
Noss and many other APEA members also joined a Facebook group for state employees. The social media outlet was a place for people to get together and talk about what was happening. Many posted photos of their layoff notices. Noss believes the page helped build momentum among members. “It was a beautiful grass-roots campaign that gave people a voice.”
Getting people to take action is a tricky thing, says Noss. “People know how to vote, but they’re not sure how to participate, and they get scared because this is unfamiliar territory for many of them. But they have to realize they have a right to speak up.”
This was a huge effort and ultimately, the unions and the governor stood together against the Legislature, says Noss. “We’ve learned a lot and that’s good, because I know this behavior will be there again next year.”
In Illinois, the situation is the other way around. The unions and the Democratically controlled state Legislature are standing together against a governor who wants to strip public employees of their right to collective bargaining.
Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, spent most of the 2015 legislative session fighting over how to address the $6 billion deficit. The battle remains unresolved; the Legislature issued a 30-day temporary budget in July.
In the meantime, a coalition of unions that represent state employees, including the Illinois Federation of Public Employees, took steps to ensure that employees who are still on the job will be paid in full for their work, even in the absence of a state budget.
“We are in a holding pattern while the governor and the Legislature battle it out,” says Thomas Kosowski, president of the IFPE, which represents 1,500 public employees. “All state services are essential, and we provide quality services. Our jobs are necessary, and it’s not fair to families or the state of Illinois,” he says. “The situation in our state is a mobilizer for members to get involved.”
In response to the budget impasse, IFPE has mobilized its members and is working in coalition with other unions. “The governor is trying to dismantle the union,” says Veronica Aguirre, a member of the IFPE who works in the Illinois attorney general’s office. “We are joining in the mobilizing efforts with other union brothers and sisters. We all provide important public services in communities throughout Illinois, and we all deserve a fair contract.”
Part of that effort is building public awareness of the role public employees play in the lives of citizens and their communities. “As the impasse continues, we know that the community is seeing the impact it is having on social services,” says Aguirre, “especially for the elderly and children.”
The coalition has held informational picketing in front of the state government agency buildings in downtown Chicago, and union members also are distributing lawn signs to friends and neighbors asking people to support public employees.
IFPE members are working with state lawmakers to support Senate Bill 1229, which allows either party involved in labor negotiations to declare an impasse and bring in a third-party arbitrator to help them reach a binding deal as a way to avoid a strike or lockout. Although the legislation passed, the governor vetoed it. At presstime, the coalition was working with legislators to override the veto.