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The Main Street Movement

Fights over budgets, pensions and public services are really a battle for the American Dream.

By President Gerald W. McEntee and Secretary-Treasurer Lee A. Saunders

Why Fights Over Budgets, Pensions and Public Services Are Really a Battle for the American Dream

Pres. Gerald W. McEntee
‘We Won’t Be Quiet’ | Pres. Gerald W. McEntee defends the right to collective bargaining outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., as the three-week standoff with Gov. Scott Walker (R) began. (Photo: Amber Arnold)

Sec.-Treas. Lee A. Saunders at Newark City Hall
Defending the Middle Class | Sec.-Treas. Lee A. Saunders addresses a New York City rally to demand that the mayor and City Council restore funding for child care services now on the chopping block. (Photo: Michel Friang)

Corporate-backed politicians continue to mount an unrelenting, anti-union economic agenda — jeopardizing the jobs, benefits and pay of tens of thousands of public service workers and critical services needed by communities across the nation.

Our great union has withstood challenges for 75 years. Each time, we have emerged stronger and more resolute. From civil rights and pay equity, to health care reform and the current battle to preserve collective bargaining, AFSCME activists have stood on the frontlines. Leading the charge for change. Never giving up.

Still Fighting

Today, we are fighting to preserve collective bargaining and prevent the destruction of the middle class — the everyday people who live and work on Main Street. And we are proud to have many of our fellow Americans — including Pres. Barack Obama — standing with us.

Together, activists throughout our union are standing up for real solutions to our country’s economic problems — solutions that pull the nation together and create good jobs for working families. We want every member of the next generation to have an honest opportunity to achieve the American dream.

The cornerstone of the American labor movement is, of course, solidarity. We stand shoulder to shoulder with each other and with those who share our dream of an America that treats each of its citizens with respect and dignity. That commitment to fairness is why our union, since its inception, has joined coalition partners in fighting for those who have low incomes, people who have no health insurance, the homeless, our nation’s seniors and its kids. Our fight has never been just about the workplace, nor has it ever been limited to the rights of AFSCME members.

The coalitions we have fostered over the years are helping us to frame the debate so that we can win in the long run. We are forging a Main Street movement, harnessing the rich history of success between civil rights and labor and using it to challenge the Wall Street power grab we see in too many state capitals and in Washington, DC. That comes through clearly in the stories you will read in this issue of AFSCME WORKS.

Sharing personal stories on the importance of unionism is vitally important. Every story preserves a piece of AFSCME history and nourishes our union’s growth. It is our hope that with schools beginning to teach the history and contributions of the labor movement, names like A. Phillip Randolph and César Chávez will be readily recognized by future generations.

A Sturdy Foundation

Of course, many of us don’t need to read about the labor movement in textbooks to fully understand it. We received our education in the days of our childhoods.

We are forging a Main Street movement, harnessing the rich history of success between civil rights and labor and using it to challenge the Wall Street power grab we see in too many state capitols and in Washington, DC.

Like many of you, the two of us grew up in union families. Workplace struggles were discussed at the McEntee dinner table in Pennsylvania, and in the Saunders’ kitchen in Ohio. Even as kids, we knew we weren’t just sons of a Philadelphia “rubbish collector” or a Cleveland bus driver. We were the sons of proud union men. The importance of collective bargaining was seared into our bones.

Growing up, we witnessed firsthand the benefits of being part of a union. Being a child of AFSCME and Amalgamated Transit Union members, respectively, meant that our families could count on a regular paycheck, decent health care and basic safety protections. But being part of a labor family meant that a union meeting could keep you from seeing your father at night, and a strike could mean you had to watch your pennies.

The Struggle Continues

Today’s union families ought to follow the example of those who came before us. Talk to your children about why some politicians want to use us as scapegoats. Tell them why attending a union meeting at night is important. Make sure they understand the importance of standing up for what’s right.

Tell everyone from your children to your neighbors to your newspapers that privatization can be stopped and collective bargaining can be restored. Tell them why we must defeat politicians who want to hurt working families. Our union’s political strength — the Green Machine — has long overcome our adversaries and, working together, it will continue to be the force of change. We’ve proved our determination in the past, and we will do so time and again.

A successful outcome to today’s battles is critical. The last six months have been nothing less than a season of horror — not just for our members, but for families across our country who rely on the vital services AFSCME members provide.

The fact that our fundamental right to bargain collectively was stolen from us in Wisconsin and Ohio illustrates the extent to which anti-union forces will further their own agendas. To be sure, radical plans are being considered throughout the country. Some call for destroying public services while awarding tax breaks to corporations and the wealthiest Americans. Budget cuts throughout the nation target not only public service workers, but services that benefit children, the poor and the elderly. And a budget bill was pushed through the U.S. House that would devastate public services, turn Medicare into a voucher program and bring back the prescription donut hole that could bankrupt retirees.

Yet, now more than any time in recent memory, the American people are on our side. They support our right to bargain collectively. They oppose cuts in Medicare and Social Security, and tax breaks for millionaires. And they reject the policies of newly elected governors and members of Congress who blame our members for an economic catastrophe that was created by corporate greed and right-wing idealogues.

America knows that our members aren’t the ones who received bailouts and bonuses. AFSCME members make an average salary of $45,000 and retire on an average pension of $19,000. The public understands the campaign waged against us is based on deceit.

A Look Back

In 1968, 1,300 members of Local 1733 went on strike in Memphis, Tenn. Sick and tired of unsafe working conditions, poor wages and no dignity or respect, black sanitation workers showed the world that when you aren’t afraid to tell the truth, support will follow. Their truth was on the signs they carried throughout the streets of Memphis: “I AM A MAN” and “COLLECTIVE BARGAINING IS THE AMERICAN WAY.”

Acting collectively, their truth set them free from a workplace rooted in exploitation.

Their story will never be forgotten. In fact, this past April, each of the brave members of that local was inducted into the U.S. Labor Department’s Hall of Fame. The occasion marked the first time an entire group of workers has been honored in this way.

An overflow crowd at the Department of Labor joined with U.S. Labor Sec. Hilda Solis, Ambassador Andrew Young and Martin Luther King III to pay tribute to these remarkable AFSCME members, eight of whom were on hand for the ceremony. These men made the American dream a reality for their sons and daughters. One Memphis striker, Alvin Turner, noted that his children had all gone to college, and several were teachers. The union, he said, guaranteed that he “was the last uneducated person in his family.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died while fighting for the very dignity of the men of AFSCME Local 1733. He had a dream we all share. Now, we must pull together — each and every one of us — to revive that dream and turn it into reality. If the tide is going to continue to turn, we must all take a turn at steering the boat.

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