Convention Opens with Energized Call for Fight, Unity

Retiring Council 5 president Judy Wahlberg holds up a #UNION sign, proudly proclaiming "I'll always be UNION!"
Retiring Council 5 president Judy Wahlberg holds up a #UNION sign, proudly proclaiming "I'll always be UNION!"

AFSCME leaders were blunt Thursday about the attacks unions face from rich corporate forces, and equally hopeful about the future.

They presented a roadmap to build an even stronger union to several hundred delegates from 125 local unions at the AFSCME Council 5 Convention, which runs through Saturday.

“The attacks on unions are unprecedented,” says AFSCME Council 5 executive director John P. Westmoreland. “Never in history has it been worse. We have to be brave and bold enough to face those challenges, not when they hit us, but before they hit us.

“We did not wait for the (anti-worker Supreme Court ) Janus decision to come down,” he adds. “We doubled-down on AFSCME Strong. We knew we had to continue to push and grow and expand our capacity.”

AFSCME International president Lee Saunders acknowledged that Janus, which ignored 41 years of case law and instantly made the entire nation “right to work” for public workers, was a setback.

But he says that case is just a smokescreen: It was funded by wealthy corporate interests like the Koch Brothers who want to rig the economy and get even richer at workers’ expense. He says they’ll stop at nothing “to burn our union to the ground."

The labor movement’s response, Saunders says, is to raise hell; the roadmap our leadership is presenting is just as bold as his statement.

“Asserting our rights and speaking truth to power in this way is how we make sure public service gets the respect it deserves,” Saunders says. “We aren’t cowering in retreat, we’re getting ready for battle. We are emboldened and inspired, showing resilience and loyalty, more defiant and determined than ever.”

That’s why the theme of the Convention is I AM UNION.

That roadmap to a strong union future has several parts. The most crucial and immediate challenge is making sure we elect a pro-worker Governor and Legislature in 2018.

Iowa failed to do so a few years ago, and the Republican-led three branches of government immediately destroyed collective bargaining and other worker rights.

Nationally, economic inequality is now so great that CEOs last year made 312 times more than the average worker. While the wealthy get more and more tax cuts, health care, Medicare, Medicaid and education are at risk.

“We need to elect a Governor who won’t take every opportunity to wipe us out, wipe out collective bargaining, take away the rights of workers and the citizens of this state,” Westmoreland says.

This year, Council 5 members won a historic pension bill and got state contracts ratified. But he points out it took a “ridiculously” long time to do both: The GOP-led House waited until the last act of the legislative session to pass the pension bill, even though it had received unanimous support from all stakeholders and the Senate months before.

 “We cannot support people who will not support public workers,” Westmoreland says. “We cannot support people who will not support the citizens of Minnesota.”

Along with organizing to elect a pro-worker Governor, House and Senate, Council 5 president Judy Wahlberg says we’ve done a lot to get prepared to fight anti-worker forces. Council 5 joined AFSCME Strong, rolled out commitment cards and is increasing membership every day.

Saunders points out more than 87 percent of our members have signed a commitment card. Since Janus, more than 1,200 people have joined.

To keep moving ahead, Wahlberg says, locals should reach out to other nearby locals to work together on common issues such as unfit bosses and unsafe working conditions. She is urging members to build community support by getting involved in local groups and making their union affiliation known.

“The time has come to take action and grow stronger,” Wahlberg says.

The Convention started Thursday with the Corrections Honor Guard presenting the flags and a moment of silence for our fallen correctional brothers. CO Joseph Gomm was killed by an inmate in July, and CO Joseph Parise died Monday after responding to an inmate attack on staff. Parise was a member of that honor guard.

Leaders and members lauded and applauded Walhberg, the first female president of Council 5, who is retiring.

“The thing I am most proud of is how far we have come as a Council,” she says. “We started as three separate Councils, and with some growing pains, we are now undoubtedly one outstanding Council. We stand up for each other. We have great, diversified representation, from various locals to our Council Executive Board. We have hard-working dedicated staff. We all work as one big family.”

Wahlberg ended her speech by saying she’ll always be union, and holding up a UNION sign to proclaim it.