AFSCME “Crisis” in Wisconsin: Staff Criticize Union Management

by RAF Staff

Amidst the onslaught against America’s public sector unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is gearing up for a fight – but the fight is not entirely focused on the union busters.

In Wisconsin, after Scott Walker succeeded in legislating away the collective bargaining rights of the state’s public employees, AFSCME International has dispatched some it’s most powerful insiders to examine a dispute between union members and their employer. But in one of the year’s greatest ironies, the dispute is between the United Staff Union which represents AFSCME’s own internal staff and their employer, AFSCME International based in Washington, D.C.

Public sector unionism began in Wisconsin. As AFSCME’s membership literature observes, unions have been a critical component to preserving a middle-class standard of living for public employees. Then, all of a sudden, public employees were hit with a full-frontal assault by the nation’s most vehement anti-union forces, backed by the preeminent right-wing family, the Kochs. With Koch money and a long, determined, on-the-ground campaign to move Wisconsin rightward away from its roots in organized labor, Governor Scott Walker succeeded in passing Act 10 which stripped away collective bargaining rights for thousands of employees.

The reaction from labor made national headlines as union members and their families descended on the Wisconsin State Capitol in protest. Meanwhile, several brave Democrats opposed to Walker’s moves did the most courageous thing they could muster: they left the state. In the midst of the chaos, the energy of the rank-and-file membership was redirected by beltway insiders who decided to focus the campaign on a recall petition for Scott Walker. The effort failed.

Since Act 10 passed in Wisconsin, AFSME International has allocated very few resources to their embattled membership in the state. According to staff within AFSCME, speaking on the condition of anonymity, there has been virtually no analysis or proactive strategy to regain lost ground. Instead, staff efforts have largely focused on simply retaining members and ensuring that dues money continues to roll in to AFSCME’s Washington headquarters.

All of this was foretold by other AFSCME leaders in the build-up to the AFSCME Convention of 2012, in which Danny Donohue, a long-time rank-and-file member of AFSCME’s powerful contingent in New York, challenged Lee Saunders, who was largely perceived as a D.C. insider. Donohue publically criticized Saunders’ style of leadership as “checkbook unionism.” However, Saunders was elected in a very contentious Convention vote in which AFSCME staff, required to remain neutral during internal elections, were directed to provide support services to the Lee campaign by AFSCME’s long-standing management. Now, almost three years into the Saunders’ Presidency, Donohue’s critique appears to be well-founded. While AFSCME members across the nation continue to lose ground, AFSCME Management has failed to devote adequate resources to fight back effectively. Instead, the Saunders administration has overseen allocation of resources focused on rewarding his internal political supporters amongst AFSCME management with promotions with six figure salaries and luxurious benefits packages.

According to a high-ranking AFSCME staffer, a former Area Field Services Director, AFSCME managers have adopted an unofficial austerity policy where few resources actually go back to supporting members. Amidst the cuts, AFSCME field staffers, represented by the United Staff Union, have also faced significant cuts.

But news that AFSCME Headquarters might be cut off from its membership cash-cow provoked a quick reaction from AFSCME’s D.C. management. Staff organizers from across the nation were dispatched to Wisconsin when AFSCME’s beltway leadership learned that public employees throughout the state would no longer have their dues money automatically deducted from their paychecks in January, 2015. For years since Act 10 went into effect, AFSCME’s rank-and-file union members were adrift with little guidance and support from HQ. But the prospect of losing dues revenue prompted a frantic effort, known internally as a “blitz” to get AFSCME’s Wisconsin members to sign-up for automatic bank draft to keep the money to D.C. flowing. As part of the effort, AFSCME staffers are working 12-14 hour days in freezing conditions for weeks on end without a break.

According to USU critics of AFSCME’s management, the crisis in Wisconsin would not have been a crisis if those in AFSCME’s D.C. headquarters had been paying attention to issues on the ground. Field staff report that they are essentially unable to adequately serve AFSCME’s membership because they are not provided the resources or support.

In a state as significant as Wisconsin, there have been no more than four international staffers present and at times even fewer prior to the threat of losing automatic dues deduction. Those in the field, organizers and staffers, feel that their concerns and warnings have gone largely ignored by AFSCME management. Now, field staff in Wisconsin are being overworked, but not as part of a push-back against the anti-union forces in Madison. Instead, according to AFSCME staffers inside the campaign, the effort is simply another “blitz” centered on securing continued financial contributions from rank-and-file members and not part of any realistic long term strategy to regain collective bargaining rights for the state’s public employees.

Resistance and criticism of management from AFSCME’s field staff in Wisconsin has also brought some of the most influential managers from AFSCME’s D.C. HQ into the state. As one USU member of AFSCME’s field staff states, “AFSCME’s own management is engaging in union busting. Their tactics are right out of the boss’s playbook. We’re trained to tell our members, ‘If you’re overworked it’s because of bad management. It’s because the workforce is understaffed.’ We know the boss will say, ‘This is just temporary’ or ‘this is a crisis’ and ask workers to make the sacrifice and that’s just what AFSCME management is doing to its own people.”

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