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A Commitment to Growth Delivers Success for AFSCME Florida Members

Mark McCullough
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In the summer of 2015, AFSCME members in Florida were facing a troubling future. Their jobs and rights were under attack across the state as anti-worker legislators and organizations were using Florida as a testing ground for the attacks we have seen nationally in the past few years. While signing up coworkers in a traditionally Right to Work for Less state had always been challenging, they agreed that organizing was the key to stemming the dramatic loss of members and turning the tide.

Now, three and a half years after the executive committee voted to reorganize into AFSCME Florida 979 Organizing Committee, members are once again ready to turn the page and start a new chapter.

“This spring we will be holding our re-founding convention and the reality is that we will be launching AFSCME Florida Council 79 with the wind at our back,” said William Orange, a nutrition worker at Jackson Memorial Hospital and leader for AFSCME Local 1363.

Orange, who was one of seven members appointed by AFSCME President Lee Saunders to a Constitution Committee, witnessed firsthand how the focus on organizing didn’t just grow the membership by 5,000 since 2015, it injected an energy, focus and commitment in everything members did.

“As the committee met, as we held town halls across the state, I can tell from just talking with my fellow members that we have been able to win better contracts, enforce them better and we have a seat at the table because we’ve grown our union,” said Orange.

A great example of the growth seen, and the opportunity the future still presents, can be found in in St. Augustine where AFSCME Local 3025 represents career employees at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind. In just the past few years, the local has more than tripled in size and now has a complete executive committee, shop stewards and a plan for the future.

“AFSCME was the dirty little secret when I started here,” explained Eyvolle Pamphile, an education and training specialist and the local’s president. “I had been an AFSCME member when I was a state employee and it even took me two years before I knew I could even be a member.”

That experience motivated Pamphile to talk with her coworkers and start trying to grow her union, all the way up to 25 members. Now, after working with the council to institute welcome back events at the start of the school year, leadership trainings and strategic planning, there are now more than 90 members and leaders in every department, including leaders who are hearing and vision impaired.

“Our union became something more than what you use when you are in trouble but something you use to fulfill your career goals,” said Pamphile. “Before we had people who here there for 20 years who never knew they had a union. Now we have a plan to ramp up home visits and one-on-one conversations because there are hundreds of our coworkers who we still have to reach.”

Over the past few years, the council has restructured itself to better focus resources as well as investing in new programs, such as communications. The AFSCME Florida website and social media properties are destinations for members and allies alike for news and information. And through a robust email and text message program members are kept informed of workplace victories and ways they can be involved more than ever.

For Deanna Howell, a bus driver with Manatee County Public Schools and president of AFSCME Local 1584, communications were key to the success she and her coworkers have had to more than double their membership, adding over 180 members in under two years.

“We had to get outside of our box and explore new things to make this not just a place people turned to for help with disciplinary issues or to complain about their boss,” said Howell.

The local decided they needed to build the union on three legs: politics, organizing and a strong contract.

“For each of these legs to be strong we had to tie them together with communications,” said Howell. “People had to know how each one influenced the other, how they tied together and success or failure of one impacted all the others.”

Working with council staff, Local 1584 leaders started making worksite visits to discuss upcoming contract negotiations. It had been six years since workers had gotten a raise or step increase but the school board kept saying there was just not enough money with the current tax structure.

“For so long our relationship had just been adversarial with the school board and nobody really wanted to take part in it. So, we needed to show them we were working towards the same goal and were facing the same issues.”

Members participated in positive rallies before school board hearings to draw attention to the ways that low pay were negatively impacting students and contributing to high turnover as staff kept leaving for better pay in surrounding counties.

“More than two-thirds of our bargaining unit have been here less than two years. That doesn’t just make organizing hard, it is also a strain on the budget with all the recruitment and training costs.”

Working with the county teacher’s union and the board, they were able to place a small millage increase proposal on the ballot. Again, working with the council, Local 1584 put together an aggressive campaign plan to win the special election.

“We won by about a thousand votes, roughly the same size as our bargaining unit, which really helped when we went back to the bargaining table,” said Howell.

As negotiations continued, the local started holding organizing blitzes to keep coworkers informed and stress how more members made their voice stronger. Ultimately, they were able to win a 6 percent raise and the reinstatement of step increases.

“Now we need to not just keep growing our members but grow out leaders,” said Howell. “That is why they year we are mapping our membership and our 53 worksites because our goal is to have at least one leader in each of them.”

Across the state, there have always been locals that were able to maintain strong membership. But that doesn’t mean they were forgotten as the council focused on growth. As membership grew, the council could commit more resources to helping on political, legal and representational issues.

“I have been doing this for a while, but I feel like I learn something new every day,” said Marcellous Stringer Jr., a waste truck driver with Miami-Dade County, and president of AFSCME Local 3292. “The council has been there to work with us because we are always facing issues and threats and if we start failing more often then coming through for our membership numbers would start to reflect that.”

Stringer pointed out that the local went through a lot of growth and leadership change shortly before the council moved into organizing status. The council helped Stringer and the other leaders with training and strategic planning, so they could keep their 66 percent membership density.

“Any time we needed help with communications to our members, anytime we had an issue with a politician or on legislative issues, the council was there for us,” said Stringer. “By working with the council, we not only were able to do things better, we were also able to save our limited resources.”

Stringer also said that the council helped his local think of different ways to engage with members in non-traditional ways, even in new ways outside of the worksite.

“Last year’s I Am 2018 campaign is a great example of how we are now talking to our coworkers about things that impact the lives at work and outside of work but doing it in a different way then we ever did before. Especially for our local, the Moment of Silence event we held with our members, management and elected officials really showed that our voice is powerful across the community.”

Stringer echoed members across the state when talking about the council’s future following the re-founding convention.

“Once you think you have all the answers is when you fail. We have made huge steps forward because we were not afraid to try new things, hold each other accountable and be honest with ourselves. Now is our chance to prove that we are the union and we are the brothers and sisters who will keep us strong and growing for years to come.”