By Lee Saunders
For Tina Suckow, helping people who are struggling with mental illness is a calling. She always wanted to be a nurse, and while she understood that her job at Iowa’s Independence Mental Health Institute could be dangerous, nothing could have prepared her for what happened on Oct. 24 of last year. A patient — believed to be in the throes of a manic episode — brutally attacked and beat her, leaving her unconscious with injuries to the head, knee and shoulder.
It has been a long road to recovery from her injuries. But in March, this nightmare took another horrific turn. After Tina’s sick days ran out, her employer, the state of Iowa, refused to grant her request for unpaid leave. And then, unconscionably, the state fired her just a few weeks after she had major surgery, a devastating blow to Tina’s family and their economic security.
For decades, Iowa had a robust collective bargaining system that allowed state employees like Tina to negotiate virtually all terms of employment. But a new state law, rammed through the legislature in 2017 with barely any debate, stripped the system down to its bare bones, leaving workers and their unions with hardly any seat at the table at all.
People like Tina who devote their careers to public service deserve better. They deserve the chance to come to the table with their employer and hash out a fair contract. A new bill introduced in Congress this week would allow them to do just that.
The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, sponsored by Rep. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania and Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, would give public employees the same rights and protections enjoyed by those who work in the private sector. It would allow them to join together in a union if a majority of employees vote to have one. It would give them the ability to bargain collectively over wages, hours and working conditions. It would provide dispute resolution mechanisms like arbitration and mediation, as well as the ability to sue.
If this bill were law, Tina could have filed a grievance through her collective bargaining contract after she was terminated. And she would have had the chance to negotiate for more rigorous workplace safety standards in the first place, perhaps preventing the incident altogether.
Workers nationwide are organizing and mobilizing to secure just these kinds of freedoms, with strong unions as the vehicle for progress. They want to level the playing field, neutralizing corporate power and unrigging an economy that privileges the super-wealthy over working families.
Thanks to a surge of bold activism from AFSCME members, the governor of Nevada recently signed an historic law empowering 20,000 state employees with collective bargaining rights. They now have the ability to negotiate for a fair return on their work and for resources their communities need. It’s the biggest expansion of collective bargaining for state workers — in any state — since 2003.
Public service workers are raising their voice and demanding respect — in the organizing trenches, at the bargaining table and in state capitals. In Delaware, AFSCME members recently won improved access to wage bargaining. In Illinois, a new contract gives state employees, among other things, their first general pay increases in five years. In Pennsylvania, state employees have reached a four-year tentative agreement with the Commonwealth and are now voting on ratification.
It’s a far cry from the demise of the labor movement predicted by many pundits. Exactly one year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, tossed out four decades of precedent to make the entire public sector so-called right to work. It was supposed to be our last gasp, or so the experts thought; instead, it ignited a call to action. AFSCME members and all working people responded to Janus with courage and resilience, fighting harder than ever for their rights, building power through their union.
From strikes by teachers, hotel workers and grocery workers to vigorous new organizing in media, behavioral health and other industries, we’re seeing the most dynamic wave of worker activism in decades. Public approval ratings for labor unions are at a 15-year high, and nearly half of all Americans say they would join a union if given the choice.
Now is the moment to harness that energy and momentum, turning it into lasting change. We can start by passing the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, giving Tina Suckow and so many like her the voice on the job they need and the basic respect they deserve.
Lee Saunders is President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.