Solidarity Forever: Wrapping Up Our 15th Annual Convention

On Thursday, Oct. 3, more than 500 registered AFSCME Council 5 delegates, plus alternates and guests, gathered at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center to convene our 15th annual convention. While this was not an election year for our Council, this Convention came with an action-packed agenda, with a deeper selection of workshop options, more opportunities to build solidarity between locals and across our differences, and an exciting guest list that included big names like Governor Tim Walz and legendary labor leader, author, and former AFSCME Council 5 member Joe Burns.

Following two morning workshop sessions, Council 5 President Pat Guernsey officially gaveled in the Convention, and delegates were welcomed to Duluth early Thursday afternoon by Duluth Mayor Emily Larson. Mayor Larson has repeatedly earned AFSCME Council 5’s endorsement through her proven commitment to advancing the labor movement. Mayor Larson has been a pioneer in helping to advance social justice, economic security and workers’ rights alongside our labor allies in Duluth, and credits public workers with making much of that progress possible.

“We’re making big changes for all workers, all families in our community, and you are a key part of that,” Larson told the assembled AFSCME delegates in her address. “You can expect a lot from the people you’re electing and working with, and that there is room for growth and possibility in what is that you bring to every conversation.

As a mayor, I thank you for choosing Duluth. As a mother, I thank you for the many services you are providing in communities to keep families strong. As a community member, I thank you,” said Mayor Larson. “When I see you out on snow plows, when I see you checking in and out library books, I know that you’re there not just because you enjoy your job, but because you believe in community and you know that your work is making a difference.”

In an inspiring opening address, AFSCME Council 5 President Pat Guernsey emphasized the critical importance of strengthening the bonds of solidarity across our differences. He pointed to our new strategic plan, a comprehensive road map developed this spring by a cross-section of board members, rank and file members, and Council 5 staff to guide our union’s progress, grow our membership and increase our change-making capacity.

Guernsey, who ran for the office of Council 5 president on a platform of member engagement and relational organizing, has been participating in regional AFSCME meetings around the state as part of the strategic plan. More regional meetings are planned throughout the state in coming months to continue creating rich opportunities for members to build relationships outside of their workplaces and locals, share perspectives and ideas, and strengthen our organizing power at the regional level.

We’re on track to meet the goals laid out in the plan, President Guernsey told the assembled delegates, but the work must continue in order to grow our collective power. One of the most important issues at hand: signing members up for Direct Dues. “As a union, we continue to face many challenges,” Guernsey told the members. “It’s just a matter of time before the courts take away employer dues deduction. When that happens, we need to be prepared. We heard how Iowa lost dues deduction in a matter of just a few weeks – that’s why we need to get ahead of this.”

Reminding the crowd of our growing strength in the face of the Supreme Court’s anti-worker verdict in Janus v. AFSCME, which turned the public sector into a right-to-work environment nationwide, President Guernsey emphasized the urgency of getting on to Direct Dues – and the power we have when we work together, no matter what any court says. “The Janus decision did not hurt us because we followed the AFSCME Strong program and we were ready when it came down,” President Guernsey said.

“Everywhere we look, people are organizing and rising up,” he told members, citing the recent nationwide spike in strikes and protests and our own local victories as evidence before giving a rousing call to action.

“We always say that every election is the most important election ever – but 2020 will be the most important election in our lifetime!” President Guernsey said. “In addition to selecting a new AFSCME-endorsed president, we need to reelect Tina Smith to the Senate and the entire state Senate will be up for election as well,” he told the crowd. “We need a union-friendly legislature so we can continue to gain better wages, benefits and working conditions across the state,” President Guernsey explained. The packed room cheered as he invited family, friends and allies to get involved in helping us elect AFSCME-endorsed candidates.

We were honored to be joined Thursday afternoon by AFSCME International Regional Director Geno Carbenia, who gave a moving address reflecting the importance of maintaining our solidarity even in the most difficult times.

“It was 15 months ago that the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in Janus v. AFSCME, a case brought by CEOs and billionaires for CEOs and billionaires. In a five-to-four decision, the Court tossed out decades of precedent and made the entire public sector nationwide right-to-work. When that happened, a lot of folks left us for dead. Even some of our allies were writing our obituary. And our enemies were getting ready to dance on our grave.”

Carbenia pointed out, however, that their plan backfired, and less than two years later unions are more popular than they have been in fifty years. But the anti-worker forces behind Janus aren’t going to quit trying to bust our union - so we’re not going to quit, either, Carbenia told the crowd.

 “As Midwesterners, we know nothing in life is free. And we’re a lot smarter than the corporate special interests behind these attacks give us credit for. But do you know what is even more dangerous than these corporate special interests?” he asked. “Complacency and distraction.”

“We can’t be distracted by those who try to divide us,” said Carbenia. “We can’t let the bonds of solidarity be broken. We can’t be knocked off our game by those who have contempt for our core values. Just like we did through AFSCME Strong after the Janus decision, of course we can survive. And we will – if we keep our eyes on the prize. If we sustain our commitment to one-on-one communication. If we keep organizing – internally and externally. If we run bold and innovative political programs. If we keep building power and taking collective action together.”

On Friday, delegates participated in a second day of workshops – a new addition to the Convention agenda this year. Another new addition was a ticketed luncheon with former Local 1164 president and labor lawyer Joe Burns, who has authored several union activism books.

When the convention reconvened. Interim Executive Director Julie Bleyhl took the podium and gave a powerful address, echoing President Guernsey’s confidence that, as with Janus v. AFSCME, our union will thrive – not just survive – as long as we focus on our solidarity and what brings us together: our AFSCME values.

“Today, there are more AFSCME Council 5 members than ever – even more than before the Janus decision,” Bleyhl informed the crowd. “That’s determination. That’s strength. That’s the power of working people.”

The attacks on our movement won’t stop, Bleyhl said – and it’s time for our members to write our union’s next chapter. “We know something our naysayers will never understand: nothing is more powerful than the solidarity of working people determined to defend our rights,” she told the packed room of AFSCME members.

“The future of working people is on the line,” said Bleyhl in a final call to action. “As anti-worker forces conspire to bring us down, it’s more important than ever to draw on our union’s legacy of joining together across our differences to protect everyone’s rights. “For the past few years,” she said, “we were fighting to survive. Now it’s time to thrive: let’s build on the progress we’ve made and create undefeatable, indestructible working peoples’ power that will only grow stronger in the years to come.”

Our final day of Convention wrapped up on an enthusiastic note, adjourning around noon after addresses from State Representatives Liz Olson and Dave Pinto and an inspiring speech from Governor Tim Walz, who we proudly endorsed and helped to elect in 2018, and who continues to stand up for working people in his new position.

Rep. Dave Pinto, also a member of AFSCME Local 8 as a Ramsey County Prosecutor, lauded the room full of public workers for their contributions to lifting up working families across the state. “I work as a prosecutor as I work as a legislator; this is just like the work of all of us at AFSCME, motivated by the belief that government can be a tool to improve peoples’ lives, to keep people safe and give everyone in our society the chance to thrive.”

Pinto painted a bleak picture of his early experiences in the House, when Democrats were in the minority until the 2018 session, spent too much time fighting off anti-worker divisive legislation – but rejoiced in the fact that we now have more power to be proactive and lift families up because we won the House majority last year and elected DFL Governor Tim Walz. “We are stepping up for paid family leave, racial and gender equity, including the equal rights amendment. We are standing up for dignified work and decent wages, the right to collectively bargain,” he declared. “Let’s keep stepping up – at the legislature this spring, at the doors this summer, and at the polls next fall. Let’s keep on Stepping Up for Minnesota together,” Rep. Pinto encouraged the group.

Rep. Liz Olson shared a moving story about meeting her husband on an AFSCME picket line nearly 17 years ago as UMD students. “It was almost 17 years to this day that I met my husband – and the power that is AFSCME!” Rep. Olson exclaimed joyfully. Her husband, now a High School paraprofessional, is now a proud AFSCME member – and Rep. Olson is proud to be a member of our labor family.

“All of you do the hard work every day of making sure our vulnerable are cared for, our elderly, you make sure our roads are safe to drive on, our water is clean to drink, food is safe to eat; you do the work to make sure Minnesota works, and for that we all thank you,” Rep. Olson said.

Speaking of her role in the State Legislature, Olson acknowledged last session’s disappointment when the GOP-held Senate blocked progressive policies from making it to the Governor’s desk. She voiced her optimism that, working people will emerge victorious in the upcoming 2020 session, and in the elections next November – as long as we stick together.

 “Policy alone isn’t all we do,” Rep. Olson reminded the audience. “We’re about a movement of people rooted in shared values that are going to move the needle forever, and there’s no going back. And that’s the power we that is in this room.  We don’t do this work alone. I’m thinking about the kids that are taken care of by paraprofessionals like my husband, the clerical workers that make UMD work, the corrections officers down in Moose Lake, and the list goes on. All of you are powerful and I am so glad to be in this work with all of you,” Rep. Olson said, and thanked the room full of AFSCME activists.

Minnesota’s 41st Governor Tim Walz, a lifelong union member himself, gave the final address at our 2019 Convention. He took the opportunity to emphasize the importance of growing our movement, making bold moves, and building relationships and coalitions across differences in order to lift up all Minnesotans. He also voiced his unwavering support for our union and the labor movement as a necessary force in fighting for working people.

“It’s about your commitment to service doing all the things that make our roads, schools safer do the work that makes the state actually a pleasant place to live in,” the Governor told assembled AFSCME delegates. “There are millions of Minnesotans who don’t pay dues, who don’t give their time to come do this, don’t organize, door knock, but benefit greatly for those of us who do. I know you pick up the slack, and you’ve got their backs. You need to know every single day, without wavering an inch on it, is that I have your back and they have your back,” said the Governor as he gestured to the DFL House Representatives sharing the stage.

“It shouldn’t be a heavy lift that parents have time off with their children when they need it, access to affordable prescription drugs and affordable health care, if your child happens to not be white they still get the same education,” said the Governor, and pointed out that those are all initiatives blocked by the Republican Senate last session – and even more reason to get to work on upcoming statewide elections.

Governor Walz also encouraged the crowd to hold elected officials accountable. “We need to not allow people off the hook, to come and stand in front of you and when they want to see you stand and cheer for them and tell you they’ve got your back – and they’re not voting that way. Call them out by making sure the one leverage we have is we can change the entire direction of the country in a 12 hour period on Election Day,” Gov. Walz encouraged the delegates.

“One of the things we have, our labor sisters and brothers who fought these fights 100 years ago, that torch has been passed to us. Those civil rights leaders who laid the ground work – that torch has been passed to us. The idea that every generation has to refight these fights is what reinvigorates America, what reignites us and lets us have ownership,” said the Governor.

“Our commitment together is to make sure we stand up for the values that make this state and this country strong,” said Gov. Walz. “We are stronger together.”