President's Corner

June 2018 Standing Strong for Public Sector Members

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President’s Corner

For much of the past decade, anti-union special interest groups have found success with a “divide and conquer” approach to attacking workers across the Midwest. In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker sold Act 10 as an effort to preserve the state budget by restricting the collective bargaining rights of public employees. He aimed to calm resistance from private-sector unions by reminding them that Act 10’s crushing restrictions did not apply to their members. Of course, after this legislation was forced down the throats of public servants, “right-to-work” laws targeting those very same private-sector workers were next on the agenda.

The goal has been to divide labor’s ability to fight back by keeping private-sector workers on the sidelines when public employees are targeted, leaving them similarly weakened when promises were broken and private-sector employees came under attack shortly after. This strategy has been plain to see as states have lined up the one-two punch of public collective bargaining restrictions, followed by the combination of passing “right-to-work” and repealing prevailing wage laws. When it is said and done, workers in these states wish they had understood it sooner and fought back harder at the start.

When lawmakers are unwilling to pass these devastating and counterproductive laws, union-busters take the fight into the courts, looking for the right political balance of justices to force changes in the law. There is no clearer example of this than the Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 lawsuit, which the Supreme Court heard this winter and will rule upon in the immediate future. After this lawsuit failed in every lower court, the Koch brothers-backed Liberty Justice Center took Trump’s appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch as a signal that the Supreme Court was ready to deal a death blow to public-sector union members.

The Janus lawsuit seeks to impose “right-to-work” on public employees nationwide, which will weaken unions’ ability to preserve and enhance their members’ wages, benefits and rights on the job. If the judgment falls on the side of the union-busters and leaves us a “right-to-work” nation in the public sector, we can rightly assume that similar efforts will follow in the private sector.

Local 150 will not stand idly by and watch an orchestrated attack play out against more than 3,000 public employees who we proudly represent. We have thought outside the box to develop theories both in and out of the courtroom to inform judges, politicians, and the public about the potential setback that a ruling in favor of Janus would deal to workers. In some cases, other unions have raised an eyebrow of disagreement with our approaches, but any union who would prefer we sit back and let someone else handle it doesn’t know Local 150.

We have a long history of representing public employees. For many years, larger municipalities that employed full-time operating engineers had contracts with Local 150. Our oldest public employer is the Lake County Department of Transportation, which has been with us since 1935. The City of Chicago, Cook County, and several others go back decades as well, but smaller municipalities either didn’t employ full-time equipment operators, or our ability to organize was hampered by the absence of a state law governing collective bargaining for public employees. This law, the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act (IPLRA), was eventually passed in 1984.

When we began to organize public-sector employees after the passage of the IPLRA, most municipalities were still using private contractors to build, repair and maintain their roads, water mains and other infrastructure. There was a growing trend, however, for municipalities with larger budgets to hire an equipment operator or two to work year-round on smaller projects. As a result, there was a growing body of skilled equipment operators who did not have the protections of a union contract, and more municipal work was being performed by non-union equipment operators.

Operators who came from union contractors were attracted to the public-sector jobs by their consistent, year-round hours and generous benefits, but the wages were far less than those provided in Local 150 contracts. Their hiring, firing, discipline, promotions, raises, and work assignments were also subject to the political whims of elected bosses who rewarded workers that would do more and expect less.

Over time, employers failed to address safety concerns raised by these workers, who were often the first responders in floods, snowstorms and other weather events that required immediate response and long hours on nights, weekends, and holidays. The generous benefits that once enticed operators to take these municipal jobs began a steady decline. There was no longer an incentive to work in these positions without a contract, so the workers were eager to organize.

Many of the workers who initially reached out to be organized simply wanted to eliminate so-called “chalkboard rules” and have a written contract that had to be followed. When we organize a first agreement, we focus most heavily on locking in what employees already have and establish protections, wage rates, seniority rules, grievance procedures, and other “building blocks” that can be expanded and built upon in the successor agreements that follow.

In 1999, Local 150 represented less than 300 members in less than 20 municipalities. Today, that number has grown to more than 3,000 members in more than 130 municipalities. We’ve been able to provide “just cause” protections that prohibit workers from being fired without cause.

More and more groups are being brought over to Local 150’s health insurance (including retiree healthcare for members), which has proven far more comprehensive and less costly than the plans offered by their employers.

Most importantly, we’ve established solid, middle-class wages. I know members who were struggling financially when they organized, who were later able to have their spouse stay home to raise their children and get by on a single income. There are few things more satisfying than seeing a worker’s life change for the better as a result of the union, and those stories are common within the public sector.

During the Great Recession, municipalities struggling with budget reductions sought massive layoffs, wage reductions and rollbacks of employees’ rights and protections on the job. Legitimate financial concerns were being blown out of proportion as

an opportunity to take back what workers had spent years negotiating. Our members stood up in one of the most impressive displays I’ve seen, agreeing to give reasonable economic concessions to avoid layoffs. We went through municipal budgets to ensure that members were not being taken advantage of, and we partnered with the understanding that when revenues returned to normal, workers would be made whole for their sacrifice. As always, the members had the interest of the citizens they serve at heart, and did what it took to maintain vital services while protecting the jobs of their co-workers.

Despite these workers’ partnership in tough times and their tireless work in dangerous conditions, Governor Bruce Rauner declared them the enemy when he came to office in 2014. His “Turnaround Agenda” was built upon the very same “divide and conquer” attacks that Scott Walker used in Wisconsin several years before. Unfortunately for him, we saw right through it, and the entire union took up the fight against his radical, punitive agenda.

When Rauner brought his roadshow to city council meetings across Illinois, he was met with hundreds of Local 150 members—public employees as well as members employed by private contractors—who called this plan the sham that it was. In the face of this unified resistance, his agenda was sunk. He failed to divide us and stood zero chance of conquering us.

The kind of attacks that are being leveled against public employees were one of the primary factors behind the creation of the Fight Back Fund. Members in the private-sector had shown support for their Brothers and Sisters in the public-sector by speaking out at hearings and rallies, and now those same members made a financial commitment to protect each other from enemies who seek to chip away at our strength and solidarity.

Fighting a Supreme Court decision is a lot different than convincing lawmakers or the communities we live in. We proved ourselves so effective in those latter capacities that our enemies took to the courts, where political appointments offer an opportunity to go over the heads of policymakers who disagree with poisonous “right-to-work” laws.

We spent the winter and spring working with law professors, labor activists, and our friends in the media to draw Supreme Court Justices’ attention to the massive downsides of Janus, and we filed lawsuits to further demonstrate the point. If the decision comes down against workers, we will keep fighting.

We will fight in court against anyone who infringes upon a union member’s rights. We will fight in negotiations to protect everything that our members have. We will fight at the ballot boxes to rid ourselves of politicians and judges who put big corporate interests before workers in this country.

If our enemies think we will take this attack or any other lying down, they are dead wrong. We will not be divided. Whether your employer is a public entity or a private contractor, we will all stand together and fight against anyone who seeks to harm us.

 

United We Stand, Divided We Fall.