By MIKE LEE
AFSCME members are heeding the call to #RiseUp following the 43rd International Convention of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Boston.
AFSCME, DC 37’s national union, now stands at the forefront of labor’s resistance as public workers nationwide are standing together, pushing back against anti-union forces after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME in June.
In his keynote address to the convention, AFSCME President Lee Saunders told the delegates and guests that while the legal setback in Janus presents serious challenges, the union is well prepared to overcome the onslaught.
“If they think we’re going to roll over, if they think this is going to slow us down or shut us up, if they think we’re going to let five unelected men in robes steal our freedom, they’ve got a big surprise coming,” Saunders said. “Because when the stakes are high and the pressure is on, we don’t cower and retreat, we don’t run and hide, we rise up,” Saunders said.
“The Janus decision is a roadblock, but we will maneuver around it or just run right over it.”
Moving forward and fighting back
Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren galvanized the crowd with a powerful speech reminding the delegates of the strategies for breaking union power culminated in the Janus ruling.
“Janus was no accident,” Warren said. “It was designed, funded and pushed through the courts by right-wing billionaires who had three things on their minds: Kill the unions.”
At the convention, DC 37 leaders and members took to the floor, speaking out in support of major initiatives, such as support for a Marshall Plan to assist recovery in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico and to reject the Trump administration’s draconian immigration policy. AFSCME celebrated past union leaders, including former AFSCME President and DC 37 Executive Director Jerry Wurf, whose role proved pivotal in the growth of both institutions, and Bill Lucy, retired AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer. Lucy was a central figure as in the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike, later leading AFSCME as a force in support of human and civil rights.
Secretary-Treasurer Elissa McBride also stressed the unfolding fightback. “The billionaires may try to conquer us – but for all their resources, they don’t have what we have: A sense of fairness. A belief in democracy. And the knowledge that our cause is just,” she said.
Ron Barber, president of Brooklyn Public Library Guild Local 1482, presented PEOPLE awards to several union members. PEOPLE is AFSCME’s political action fund.
“It takes resources to be effective campaigners and to hold elected officials accountable. So we seize every opportunity to have conversations about politics and the importance of the PEOPLE program,” Barber said, before giving out the Power to Win PEOPLE Fundraising Awards. Other public officials spoke, including New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and labor leaders, such as New York’s own Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers.
Mary Kay Henry, international president of Service Employees International Union, told the crowd of the importance of solidarity in resisting the anti-union attacks.
“The good news is that more ordinary Americans are standing up to fight for something better,” she said. “We’ve seen it with teachers from West Virginia to Arizona. They demonstrated how collective action can make change happen.”
For more than 1,000 of the delegates, the 43rd AFSCME Convention in Boston was their first time at a convention. DC 37’s delegation included four new union locals and dozens of first-time delegates, including a new local president. This new generation of union activists is among the thousands of AFSCME members who have pledged to #RiseUp for working families and public services.
Queens Public Library Guild Local 1321’s Andrew Barfield was one.
“You get to meet people from different parts of the country who share the same goals of trying to bring equality in the workplace,” he said. “It’s really opened up my eyes to what is being done on the national level, because I never knew anything about it. This is a collective, and I realize we share the same issues.”
The DC 37 Blog is an online publication of District Council 37, AFSCME, which represents 125,000 municipal employees in New York City. This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Public Employee Press.