Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #27 September 25, 2001

AFSCME Organizing Convention Vows
To Recruit 100,000 Members in 2 Years

By Harry Kelber

At their first-ever organizing convention on Sept. 7-9 in Los Angeles, 1,200 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) delegates approved a goal of winning 100,000 new members in two years. With 1.3 million members, AFSCME is one of the fastest growing AFL-CIO unions, having organized 75,000 public workers since 1998.

In a keynote address, President Gerald McEntee emphasized that, in the current political climate, government officials are trying to solve their budgetary problems at the expense of their employees. He announced that the international union aims to increase the percentage of its budget devoted to organizing from 25% to 30%, and urged delegates from district councils and locals to commit more money to organizing.

“There’s nothing more important to AFSCME’s future than building a larger and stronger labor movement,” McEntee said. “That’s why we’re committed to an aggressive strategy to grow our union and continue to build power for working families at the ballot box, in Congress and in the legislative chambers and city halls across the country.” (McEntee is also chairman of the AFL-CIO’s Political Committee.)

The convention featured workshops where delegates, many of them volunteer organizers, learned about strategies used in past successful campaigns. They had time to meet informally to exchange ideas and form new networks. The union hopes that a “grassroots army” will draw inspiration from the gathering.

Given the union’s involvement in several major organizing campaigns. the 100,000 goal appears to be realistic. Two prime organizing targets, each with about 25,000 employees, are Missouri and Kentucky, both “right-to-work” states whose governors have signed executive orders granting state employees the legal right to collective bargaining. Another campaign is underway in Maryland, where the governor signed a similar executive order five years ago.

In Puerto Rico, AFSCME is part of a multi-union drive to organize more than 100,000 workers, the largest such effort in half a century. Social workers will be voting before the end of the year. Home care workers in California and New Jersey, Head Start workers in Ohio, mental health employees in Illinois and food service workers in a dozen states are involved in other organizing drives.

While the union has about 200 seasoned, full-time organizers, it relies heavily on its 500 VMOs,Volunteer Member Organizers. The union periodically conducts “blitz” weekend training programs at district councils to draw more volunteer support. Every participant takes home a 50-page instruction manual.

Public sector organizing is relatively easy compared with campaigns in the private sector, where many employers are blatantly anti-union. Often, managers of public institutions want to have cooperative relationships with unions, especially when they are seeking more funding from a state, county or city.

Delegates were enthusiastic about their experiences at the convention. Denise Berkley, who works at the Developmental Disabilities Service Office in Brooklyn, N.Y., said: “I’m ready to do my part. I have learned a lot here that I want to take back to my local and just share some of the energy of this convention.”

Wanda DeJesus, who is working on a corrections department campaign in Puerto Rico, said: “This has been such a great experience for me…Organizing is hard work, especially when there are larger political issues, such as statehood, that impact on everything we do. But being here gives us a new fervor for organizing.”

Some 35 of the AFL-CIO’s 66 international union affiliates have fewer than 100,000 members, the number that AFSCME expects to organize in the next two years.

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