North Valley Labor Federation Public Employee Summit Builds Power in the Valley
by Tim Robertson
On Saturday, March 5, members from fifteen public sector unions joined for a summit in Merced to discuss ongoing threats to public employees and how to fight back. The event, hosted by the North Valley Labor Federation, saw over 40 union members from across the Central Valley – a challenging area for unions – unite to build power for working people. Through improving communications and organizing skills, public employee members and leaders are now poised to grow the power of their locals and the Labor Movement as a whole.
Noting that recent attacks on public sector unions were only the beginning of a sophisticated money-driven campaign to destroy all unions,, members and leaders in attendance agreed that the best defense is aggressively organizing to fight back. Hunter Stern, Secretary-Treasurer of the North Valley Labor Federation said:
“The Koch brothers and corporate CEOs are totally focused on decimating public sector unions, in order to cripple the Labor Movement as a whole. We all agreed that we need to expand and enhance organizing in the Valley, and hopefully this summit will help ignite such efforts.”
The summit featured a full day of interactive presentations and exercises exploring ways to approach internal organizing in the public sector. Topics included putting a plan together, improving communications, and revamping organizing techniques and conversations. After a brief outline of ongoing threats to public workers, attendees got a sense of how to win this fight from those who have been there before.
Johanna Puno Hester, Special Assistant to the Executive Director for the United Domestic Workers of America (UDW/AFSCME Local 3930), outlined the ongoing successes UDW has had organizing through their agency fee court case, Harris vs. Quinn. UDW membership has grown 73% from Jan 2014 to March 2016, adding nearly 28,000 new members through a commitment to prioritizing organizing at every level of the union. Hester highlighted improved use of technology, social media, and aggressive use of blitzes and one-on-one conversations as key ingredients to their success.
This was followed by a specialized “Changing the Narrative” presentation by California Labor Federation communications director Steve Smith. The popular exercise, which emphasizes effective language to use when talking about unions, was enhanced with public sector specific examples to help with future organizing. One important breakthrough for attendees was the power in describing members by the work they do and their impact on our communities, not just as “public employees.” Smith said:
“When communicating about our members, whether it be to the public or ourselves, it’s important that we relay the value of our work. The teacher who inspires our children to read every night before she goes to bed…that is a public sector worker. That’s who these attacks are focused on.”
Equipped with new communication techniques, attendees were then trained in the art of organizing by Fred Ross, Jr., the longtime organizer and current head of the organizing steward program at IBEW Local 1245. Here, members modeled conversations about the benefits of having a union, and some of the problems they’d have without one. This helped trainees better visualize and frame conversations they will soon be having with coworkers, which were further honed by inter-union group discussions.
Ross was pleased with the attendees and the event:
“It’s a credit to all the members who came out on a Saturday to learn how to make their unions stronger. There was a lot of desire for progress, and I think this summit encouraged and equipped attendees to build power through the Labor Movement. It was a great idea for the North Valley Labor Federation to put on this event, and I look forward to seeing the results in action.”
The event closed with a look forward, as participants made plans to bring this information back to their locals in order to better engage their memberships on working family issues. Participants discussed the need to build political power in order to improve bargaining positions and protect unions from outside attacks. They adopted a renewed belief in the importance of political power to the Labor Movement, especially in the Central Valley, and are looking forward to a bright future. Jeff Emens, President of AFSCME Local 10, which represents Stanislaus County public employees, summed it up:
“Culturally and historically, the Central Valley — especially places like Modesto and Merced — has been a challenging place to organize public workers to build power. With the tools our leaders learned today, AFSCME Local 10 is much better equipped to drive our membership and strengthen our union.”
If public sector unions in the Central Valley exercise all of their potential power, they will certainly help write a new and more prosperous history for working families in the Central Valley.