CHICAGO – AFSCME President Lee Saunders today announced that the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees nearly doubled the goal set in January 2014 when the union launched its “50,000 Stronger” organizing campaign.
“Today, we are 92,155 members stronger, with new members from EMTs to home care workers, and we will continue our fight for the middle class and the future of this country,” Saunders declared. Delegates to the union’s 41st International Convention who heard his opening day remarks yesterday jumped to their feet and roared their approval, applauding, stomping their feet and clapping for several minutes. “Our opponents want to deplete the labor movement of resources, steal our power and silence our voices,” he said.
The better-than-planned results of the 50,000 Stronger campaign, which was launched at an internal leadership summit in January, were particularly sweet for the union and its members, coming as they do on the heels of Harris v. Quinn, a Supreme Court decision that undermines AFSCME’s ability to represent home and child care workers.
Included in the 90,000-plus new members are more than 20,000 of those home care workers, who were the target of the lawsuit which was funded by the National Right to Work Committee.
“Just two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court undermined the freedom of home care workers and child care workers. But if anybody thinks we are giving up because things got harder, they are wrong,” Saunders declared.
The union sees its successful organizing campaign as a clear indication that face-to-face organizing is the proper response to what has been an onslaught of attacks on public service workers.
“You see, we know what it means to be caught in a storm, said Saunders. “We understand what it means to be tossed on rough seas. Getting through the storm takes not only courage, but perspective. You have to focus on what you are going through but keep your eye on where you are headed.”
Vibiana Saavedra, a home care provider from California who was at the convention led a discussion among home care workers about ways in which the union can grow. The consensus among them was that bold action is required.
“The lawsuit was funded by billionaires,” she said, referring to the Harris v. Quinn case. “They wanted us to lose the union but AFSCME was prepared for the assault.”
Saunders warned that the opponents of unions are “more threatening than ever. Our opponents want to deplete the labor movement of resources, steal our power, silence our voices and cripple us,” he said.
He tied that into what the union sees as another key struggle – the fight against the GOP’s voter suppression efforts.
“They are even undercutting the most fundamental right we have as Americans: the right to vote, ” Saunders added. “Yet, no matter the challenges that face us, the answer remains the same: Organize. Organize. Organize.”
The campaign to boost membership by 50,000 was not the only innovative thing AFSCME has over the last 12 months to boost membership. The 1.6 million-member union, along with other AFL-CIO unions, has embarked on a program of reaching out to grass roots community organizations that are not part of the traditional labor movement..
John Hasalam, director of the Vermont Workers Center was present with Saunders, for example, at a Houston meeting last February of the AFL-CIO’s executive council. The Vermont Workers Center, which is not a union, started out as a group of low-wage workers who, in 1998, had established a workers’ rights hotline.
In 2011 AFSCME began cooperating with the group in a campaign for free universal healthcare in Vermont and the group began to help in the drive to unionize health care workers in the state. “Since then we’ve gotten 7,000 new AFSCME members in Vermont alone,” said Saunders.
Photo: Abram Hackman (far right), of Illinois Local 2060, celebrates the opening session of the 41st AFSCME International Convention in Chicago. Photo credit: Tessa Berg, Convention website.