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The rise of AFSCME
as public employee union with clout

One of labor's untold stories is the rise in Illinois of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Until recent years, AFSCME was treated as a stepchild in the tough, gritty world of traditional craft and industrial organizing, but now the public employee union has become one of the largest and most powerful labor groups. It has forged a new image in Illinois and in the nation.

AFSCME's growth on the national level set the stage for its growth in Illinois. The union's increased membership nationally is clear over the sweep of its history, from its antecedents in 1933 in Wisconsin to the present. David Hoffman, spokesman for the union's international office in Washington, D.C., says in 1936 AFSCME had 9,700 members nationwide. By 1975, it had 650,000 members. Today it has 1.3 million. The growth in sheer numbers brought heavy clout. The union's growth accelerated in Illinois in the early 1980s when it helped to push for and win key collective bargaining legislation for public employees.

In the last two decades the union has mushroomed in size under strong leaders

Despite its nontraditional organizing of public sector workers and its majority female membership, the burgeoning union has won a place among old-style unions that earlier pooh-poohed it. "Over the past six to seven years, we are one of the few or maybe the only union that has had decent growth in the AFL-CIO," says AFSCME International President Gerald McEntee. He declares that his organization has become "a real part" of the labor movement as a result of the growth and increased influence.

The union could soon take the lead in the umbrella AFL-CIO organization. Nationally, AFSCME's 1.3 million membership is "a shade behind the Teamsters" in the AFL-CIO, McEntee says. The union's main service-sector rival, the Service Employees International Union, has about 800,000 members in the United States, of which about half are in the private sector. In the United States, the public sector is about 35 percent organized, compared to about 14 percent in the private sector, McEntee says. Unions representing service employees are on the rise; unions of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, including those from ailing "smokestack" industries, are on the skids.

AFSCME gained 84,000 members nationally last year. The union continues to channel many resources to spur growth and over the years has increased dues-paying membership in states such as Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. In contrast, the United Auto Workers (UAW) lost 55,000 members last year in the face of hostile corporate managers who lay off workers and fold or relocate plants to nonunion states or other countries. Paul Booth, one of the labor strategists responsible for AFSCME's rise in Illinois, now directs organizing efforts through the union's Washington, D.C., international office. He believes AFSCME now may claim the title once reserved for the UAW: the most progressive U.S. union fighting for social justice.

Richard Walsh, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, says AFSCME is among the strongest unions under his umbrella organization in membership and in political clout. He says public sector employment and public employee union membership are growing nationwide, with AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union seeing the most growth. In Illinois, Walsh believes AFSCME has probably grown the most.

Council 31, the statewide umbrella organization for most of AFSCME, has gone from about 12,000 members in 1972 (mostly in municipal and county government offices) to almost 70,000 members in 1991. In the last two decades the union has mushroomed in size under strong leaders such as Steve Culen, Council 31 executive director and an international vice president of the union. Culen and his cohorts say they listen and respond to workers and union members, deliver benefits through collective bargaining and work to construct a strong political power base inside and outside the labor movement.

The trend indicates that AFSCME will remain supreme in public employee organizing. AFSCME is the largest affiliate of the Illinois AFL-CIO by reported dues-paying membership. In 1980 AFSCME Council 31 had 26,000 members, and five years later it had 47,000 members. By December 1990, membership had climbed to 69,500, including 42,500 state workers, 24,000 city and county workers and 3,000 university employees. This growth includes about 6,000 professional employees added since the 1984 passage of the state's collective bargaining laws for public employees. The professional rank and file

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include 3,500 state workers, 1,000 Chicago city workers and 1,000 Cook County workers. Their jobs range from juvenile and adult probation officers to state lawyers working as public defenders and appellate prosecutors and defenders.

AFSCME has developed what is considered a first-class political action committee. Public Employees Organized to Promote Legislative Equality (PEOPLE). It spends a lot of money to train and pay unionists who work on political campaigns to help elect and reeled pro-union candidates. This extends AFSCME's clout outside labor to influence events at the State-house, Chicago's City Hall and other bodies and offices where government managers control budgets under which AFSCME members are employed.

Much of AFSCME's growth comes from organizing the previously unorganized. One AFSCME hallmark is wooing "new collar" workers into joining the rank and file. New collars include many people in government who often do not fit the traditional mold of' "pink collar'' clerical workers or "blue collar" manual laborers. AFSCME organizes data processors, mental health workers, public aid caseworkers, child welfare workers, prison guards and a raft of other titles, including lawyers and accountants. Government employees who are supervisors, managers or policy makers may not join because by law they may not bargain collectively.

These new collars, many of whom are women, are interested in such issues as equal pay, low-cost day care, career development and parental leave, as well as wages and hours and other old-style "bread and butter" issues. AFSCME's success has come partly because it addresses these quality-of-life issues and balances them with traditional union demands. "We are unwilling to remold our members' views to fit into traditional trade-union politics," says Booth.

AFSCME tries to anticipate new issues and demands of the work place. In the early 1980s when AFSCME organizing was stalling, the issue of comparable worth for women, or pay equity, received national attention in an AFSCME court case in the state of Washington. In Illinois, the union promoted pay equity bargaining provisions, which attracted new members, says Steve Trossman, spokesman for AFSCME's Council 31.

Ultimately, AFSCME's success stories are written by organizers and volunteers in the field. Later this year, AFSCME hopes to claim victory in a vote for union representation by University of Illinois employees working at the Urbana-Champaign campus. Ed Ramthun is leading the AFSCME drive that has been going on since 1984. He and organizer David King predict several thousand workers will elect to join the AFSCME fold to form clerical, secretarial, technical and professional bargaining units. One of their organizing issues: Clerical workers at the university get paid less and work longer than comparable state workers.

Sari Schnitzlein, the secretary in the Women's Studies Program at the Urbana campus of the university, has been volunteering some time to get people to vote for AFSCME as their union. Schnitzlein, 43, married, with 6-year-old twins, wants the union movement on campus to be sensitive to women's issues and to issues of aging. "I'm concerned with retirement and the way the university thinks it can treat people. The majority of people are concerned about money issues." Judith Rowan, vice chancellor in the university's office of public affairs, says the university is neutral on the subject of unions, including AFSCME.

Schnitzlein is not atypical. The best target workers for public sector organizing are not men, but women, many of whom do not make that much money as single people, heads of households with children or as part of two-worker families. AFSCME also makes strong pitches to young workers, minorities and those in dead-end jobs.

The union employs many issues and strategies in its organizing arsenal. Under the state's collective bargaining laws, which went into effect in 1984, AFSCME may negotiate health insurance matters, as well as wages, hours, grievance procedures and pensions. Workers are also concerned with dignity at the work place. They want more say in management decisions, a thrust often expressed in "co-management" proposals that the union pushes. Perennial AFSCME issues are staffing ratios in state mental institutions and state prisons. Prison overcrowding and safety are hot topics, as are agency appropriations for salaries, benefits and client services.

One Illinois program, Upward Mobility, is expected to attract more workers to the union. It was established as a result of AFSCME negotations for the state contract beginning July 1, 1989 (expiring June 30, 1991). Under the program, an AFSCME member working for the state may identify a target job and prepare for a test. People who pass get on a promotion list, irrespective of seniority or party affiliation, says Roberta Lynch, AFSCME director of public policy.

The ground-breaking Upward Mobility program started July 1, 1989, and some 40,000 state employees are eligible, says Kathy Rem, spokeswoman for the state Department of Central Management Services. Of those eligible, about 13,000 have registered for the program. Some 300 people are waiting to see a counselor to prepare for a test; 50 people have been promoted.

Initiatives like Upward Mobility help explain Illinois AFSCME's success. McEntee says Illinois Council 31 "has set new standards and ideas." He says, "They've done magnificent things in terms of public health and welfare," and credits Council 31 with forcing business to disclose the use of any toxic chemicals at the work place.

AFSCME also prospers because it works democratically. Its leadership educates members on strategies and issues and, in turn, allows the membership to educate it. As in other unions, AFSCME members elect stewards, local union presidents, executive boards and convention delegates. But AFSCME takes democratic decision-making further. For example, some 200 to 250 union members, representing a cross-section of the membership and including local union presidents and chief stewards, review proposed contract provisions during negotiations with the state.

John Hartnett, manager of the Division of Employee and Labor Relations in Central Management Services, has been administration negotiator for the last two AFSCME contracts which cover some 44,000 employees out of the 50,000 under

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the governor. Hartnett describes AFSCME's negotiation methods as "very democratic." It is 25 administration people facing 250 union people at the bargaining table. Hartnett says working with all the AFSCME people is exciting and exhausting, and talks are intense. The method apparently works. Hartnett says no AFSCME-proposed contract has been turned down, and there have been no statewide strikes.

Hartnett says collective bargaining keeps things on an even keel and does not cost taxpayers extra in the long run. (Gov. James R. Thompson's longtime budget director, Robert Mandeville, agrees. He says studies show that AFSCME-negotiated contracts kept workers apace with inflation during Thompson's tenure.)

AFSCME politically

Public employees, mostly led by AFSCME and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, have increasing clout within the Illinois AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO unions often are in opposition to the Illinois Education Association (IEA). They see the IEA as sometimes endorsing antilabor candidates who have taken a pro-education stance in limited instances. The Illinois Federation of Teachers, generally supported by AFSCME, sees the IEA as unprincipled in giving political endorsements. The IEA defends its independent endorsements and says AFSCME can be a maverick of sorts within the AFL-CIO.

Public-sector unions, such as AFSCME, the teachers and the firefighters, are more involved politically in Illinois than some of the traditional unions since public employee unionists' bread-and-butter issues depend on state policies and funding.

AFSCME works with the United Mine Workers of America's (UMWA) leaders in Illinois to support AFL-CIO issues, such as improved workers' compensation and unemployment insurance. The UMWA has people who can do campaign work in southern Illinois, where many unions have little clout, to help elect labor candidates and pressure lawmakers. In turn, the UMWA gets help in passing its labor agenda from the AFL-ClO's (including AFSCME's) lobbying efforts in Illinois.

AFSCME's agenda for this spring's legislative session includes more protections for the public employee's pension system (AFSCME is afraid politicians and lawmakers will borrow money from the fund), better medical and life insurance, improvements in workers' compensation and smaller caseloads at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, where some union caseworkers must handle 70 or more cases, twice the department's standard.

In political endorsements, the AFL-CIO, as well as many of its affiliates, traditionally back Democratic candidates. (The state umbrella group endorses candidates for the General Assembly and those running for statewide office. There are no sanctions applied when an AFL-CIO member union endorses differently.) Breaking tradition in 1986, the AFL-CIO coalition, including AFSCME, endorsed Gov. James R. Thompson for reelection because of his support for collective bargaining and other labor bills. It was the first time the state AFL-CIO had endorsed a Republican for governor. In 1990 the Illinois APL-CIO voted to endorse Democrat Neil F. Hartigan for governor over Republican Jim Edgar, citing Hartigan's long and steady labor support. AFSCME remained neutral in the 1990 governor's race.

Cheryl Frank

All is not smooth. At the same time that government workers organize and bargain under the protection of state law, patronage systems have been limited by the courts. At the local level, city and county government officials can no longer easily control jobs through patronage practices that once allowed ward committeemen and party leaders to demand political work and contributions from union employees. AFSCME leaders are flexing their muscles as patronage systems lose their grip and the union grows in power. They work to elect candidates and expect the proverbial quid pro quo. For example, AFSCME is now raging against Cook County Circuit Clerk Aurelia Pucinski, whom the union worked hard to elect. It accuses her of reneging on her pro-labor stance once she gained office. Unionists predict they will defeat her at the polls. However, Carolyn Barry, spokeswoman for Pucinski, said her boss is "very pro-labor and she is very pro-union" but felt that AFSCME lacked having 50 percent of the workers organized, which is necessary before "fair share" money from nonunion workers must be paid the union for the benefits from collective bargaining.

Part of AFSCME's success in Illinois meant out-organizing other unions. Much credit is given to the union's international office and its gung-ho president in the 1960s and 1970s, Jerry Wurf. McEntee's predecessor, Wurf sent organizers and resources to Illinois until the state organization became self-supporting. In the early days, AFSCME's chief opponent was the Illinois State Employees Association (ISEA). "But ISEA was not a real union like AFSCME," says Sue Altman, spokeswoman for the state AFL-CIO. "Their officers and stewards tended to be management and middle management folks, much more than in AFSCME.''

William Hardy, ISEA executive director, says his group represents several thousand state employees and some 15,000 to 18,000 retired state workers. He says AFSCME beat his association, for example, in winning the right to represent all state clerical workers under the governor. (Unions other than AFSCME may organize other clerical workers. For example, the University Professionals of Illinois has organized clerical workers, the faculty and other employees into bargaining units at Sangamon State University in Springfield.) Hardy respects AFSCME for its ability to win victories and good contracts, but he thinks the union could do more for retirees.

By many informed accounts, AFSCME's continued rise in Illinois largely rests on the shoulders of Culen, a pivotal figure in Illinois AFSCME since 1972. Labor aficiandoes also have high praise for early leaders like Larry Marquardt, Culen's predecessor, and for Booth as the brains behind many of AFSCME's contract provisions.

McEntee credits Culen with the foresight to support Harold Washington for mayor of Chicago in the 1983 Democratic primary over incumbent Jane Byrne. Culen says she became anti-union once in office. Every Chicago mayor before her had successfully sunk collective bargaining bills in the General Assembly. Washington, who was elected the city's first black mayor, had a shining labor record as a state lawmaker and congressman. Washington lived up to his promise and helped get a collective bargaining law passed through the General Assembly,

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Culen says. That allowed the union to negotiate labor agreements with the Chicago mayor on behalf of city employees.

AFSCME leaders have navigated the political waters well. They praise two governors. One is Dan Walker, the Democrat who took office in January 1973 and issued Executive Order No. 6 the following September. The order recognized the right of employees under his jurisdiction, including 21 code departments, to bargain collectively. That was one of the green lights for AFSCME to beef up its organizing.

The second governor seasoned AFSCME leaders cite with approval is Thompson, the liberal Republican, who continued collective bargaining under the Walker executive order. In 1983 Thompson signed the state's two major laws governing collective bargaining for public employees, a second green light for AFSCME organizing.

When Thompson took office in 1976, AFSCME had no assurance of continued collective bargaining under Walker's executive order. Thompson had received almost no labor backing. The AFL-CIO's Walsh thinks it would have been politically impossible for Thompson to rescind the executive order and stop collective bargaining. Peter Vallone, who was Thompson's chief negotiator, recalls that Wurf, still the determined, self-defined "progressive," traveled to Illinois and quietly met with him and Thompson. Vallone, now the head of the human relations office for Yale University, says Wurf pleaded for Thompson to continue collective bargaining and the governor agreed to do so.

By 1986, Thompson was decidedly a "labor" governor. That was the year that labor, including AFSCME, overwhelmingly endorsed Thompson for governor. Thompson snagged the endorsement because he had carried through on his promise to sign a collective bargaining bill if labor could put one on his desk. Nor did it hurt that in July AFSCME had won a three-year contract that would increase members' pay a minimum of 14 percent.

Getting a law passed to guarantee public employees the right to bargain collectively has a long history and a twisted plot. The state AFL-CIO, AFSCME and other unions had been heavily involved in the 1981 legislative redistricting. The next year, the state's labor movement got more involved in political campaigning to stop antilabor legislation such as a right-to-work proposal that brought 20,000 unionist marchers to the Capitol. Labor was also fuming over President Reagan's attempts to break the air traffic controllers' union.

The Illinois Education Association wanted a separate collective bargaining law passed for educational employees, while the Illinois Federation of Teachers and AFSCME, both members of the Illinois AFL-CIO, wanted one law to give all public employees the same framework and rights. Committed to the Illinois Education Association, Thompson amendatorily vetoed the bill that passed, which combined state employees and teachers under one collective bargaining law. That set off intense negotiations among unions to come up with two measures, separating education from other public employees. They did, and Thompson signed both bills.

Although not done precisely as they wished, Thompson's deed fulfilled his promise to the AFL-CIO and AFSCME. Illinois had enacted public employee bargaining legislation. All the right conditions had been met for a collective bargaining law: the election of pro-labor Harold Washington, the election of pro-labor Democratic majorities in the Illinois House and Senate, the renewed stirrings of the labor movement and the support of Thompson. Getting collective bargaining legislation signed into law, as well as gaining state contracts that satisfied their members, explain much of AFSCME's success.

There are victories that elude AFSCME leaders, like getting Max Liberles to affiliate with Council 31. Liberles is president of Local 2000 of AFSCME, called the Illinois Union of Social Service Employees. His group has 8,400 members who so far have declined affiliation with Council 31. Liberles prefers to remain independent and affiliate only with the AFSCME international office. Liberles says his group, comprised of employees of the Department of Public Aid, the Department of Rehabilitation Services and other social service agencies, is like a second council, specializing in issues affecting public aid department employees.

The union worries about the downward turn of the economy and "privatization," Culen says. The state is contracting for temporary workers, and there has been talk of the state's paying for "privatizing" some services by letting businesses manage what had been the state's direct responsbility, such as prisons. AFSCME fights these tendencies because it would lose members and because the union thinks services would decline in quality.

Culen and AFSCME leaders now have their sights on the new Republican governor. Their current state contract expires June 30, and Gov. Jim Edgar is faced with tight budgets, upwardly spiraling demands and possible layoffs of state employees. The road ahead may not be so smooth for AFSCME. Things got rocky in 1982 when some 1,000 state employees had to be laid off or furloughed because of state budget shortfalls.

Additionally, there are signs that Senate Republicans could make bumps for AFSCME in the General Assembly. In the 1990 election, the union endorsed the Democratic candidate over the Republican, longtime state Sen. John Davidson of Springfield, in the 50th District. That did not sit well with some Republican senators who try to please their AFSCME constituents in hopes of getting union support. Mark Gordon, press secretary for Senate Minority Leader James "Pate" Philip (R-23, Wood Dale), says Davidson had performed many services for AFSCME members, possibly more than any other senator. The anti-Davidson endorsement shows AFSCME is still solidly in the Democratic camp, even though many of its members are Republicans, Gordon says. He predicts that many Republicans who have acted favorably toward AFSCME legislation will no longer do so. Spokesmen for other legislative leaders voice little criticism of AFSCME, saying it does not surprise them that the union has Democratic leanings. They acknowledge the union as a player in the hardball politics practiced in Illinois and a force in pushing for labor's agenda in the Statehouse.

Cheryl Frank has worked as a Statehouse reporter for several Illinois newspapers and as a magazine writer for a national law publication.

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