Day on the Hill 2019: Sharing our Stories

Sharing Our Stories

Seven AFSCME members from across Minnesota shared their personal stories with House Speaker Melissa Hortman and more than 1,000 members of our AFSCME Council 5 family. The workers came from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, but their stories shared one solid thread: their AFSCME values and the value of the services we provide that make Minnesota happen.

Members speak at Day on the Hill

Rachel Lipkin, a Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation Career Probation Officer and member of Local 552, also serves as a Family Court Services Mediator/Evaluator for Hennepin County. After witnessing a childhood friend’s struggle to cope in an abusive family, she pursued a career that would allow her to help families get through trauma. Lipkin says her work is constantly under threat of privatization - putting the quality services she and her coworkers strive to provide for struggling families on the line.

“The private sector cannot provide the same level of services for the most vulnerable in our communities. Counties that have eliminated positions like mine have increased Court calendars and costs, longer legal processes, and more families not receiving vital services,” Lipkin told Speaker Hortman and the audience.

“The need for our public mediation and evaluation services is great, the work hard, but so is the importance of AFSCME union workers like me working towards community safety, positive child development and support for parents to provide their children the love and care they need.”

Spirit Valley YMCA Health and Wellness Coordinator Takeesha Coon and Rachel Loeffler-Kemp, the Community Services Director Duluth United Way, are both members of Local 3558 in Duluth, which is made up of bargaining units from different organizations that function as a partnership between private and public entities.

Loeffler-Kemp, who grew up in a union household, spends her days connecting working families with the community resources they need. She emphasized the value of shared responsibility and contribution to our communities, imploring legislators to support crucial programs like the one she coordinates. “I can't do this work alone. The organizations, agencies and people I work with each day rely on our state government for the resources and services they need. As elected officials, your support for these programs and the working families they support is crucial,” Loeffler-Kemp said.

Coon’s testimony reflected those same values. She shared her personal story of being a single mom of four and moving to Duluth for a more secure future for her family. “This work is important because of the opportunities it brings to people out there who are looking for a better way of life like myself and my children. We are only able to do this work with the support of our Lawmakers and our union.”

Jill Erzar of Local 2508 had the audience riveted as she recalled her experiences as a zookeeper at the Como Zoo and Conservatory. “There is nothing better than watching a child the first time they get to feed a giraffe, or see a bison up close,” Erzar said. “Kids around the world don’t have what we have right here in St. Paul,” she added, and pointed to our union as one of the main forces making that possible. After working at several non-union zoos and struggling to make ends meet, Erzar shared, she’s finally found financial security as an AFSCME member at Como. “I no longer have to work two to three jobs just to survive, I can put all of my energy into my career, I’m a safer zookeeper and I’m able to better engage with the public because of it. We can do our best work because of AFSCME,” Erzar said.

University of Minnesota Child Development Center (CDC) teachers Emily Erpelding and Heather Lynch, members of Local 3937, spoke to the value of affordable, quality early childhood education and childcare for all Minnesotans. “I get to play a role in the lives of children. I see them grow and develop in so many ways. Knowing what I do impacts their life is a huge reward and a burden at the same time,” Lynch said. Erpelding, accompanied by her two-year-old daughter, agreed, lamenting the fact that early education work is undervalued. She asked for lawmakers’ support and solidarity with our union, pointing to recent events at the CDC as evidence.

Both Erpelding and Lynch were active in a fight to keep their facility open when the University revealed a plan to shutter the one-of-a-kind child development center. The workers won - and credit the victory to the power of collective action and union solidarity. “Without our union we would not have had the resources and support to fight for our center. We would have been out of work and dozens of families would have been without care for their children. Working at the facility as unionized employees gives us the opportunity to negotiate for better pay and benefits,” Erpelding said. She added that being an active union member is about more than building a solid foundation for her own family. “I believe that once we’re able to obtain higher wages and more respect for the teachers in our center, we will be able to work toward these goals for all teachers and workers in this essential field,” she said.

Scuffy Paulson is a Rochester MnDOT worker from Local 868 and AFSCME Council 5 Executive Board member. He began his speech by firing up the crowd of more than 1,000 AFSCME members with a request for a round of applause for all of the Department of Transportation workers who strived to keep our roads and bridges clear of snow and ice all through the harsh winter and are now spending their days (and nights) patching potholes, repairing roads and inspecting old bridges across the state.

Paulson told us what it was like behind the wheel of a snowplow during Minnesota’s recent polar vortex. “As we’d bust the road open we’d hope to god there wasn’t a car in there,” he recalled. “White out conditions - it was a bad situation. We made it all the way out to where we turned around, we picked up seven cars on the way out. With people in there – kids, grandmas and grandpas, everyday Minnesotans,” Paulson said. “The importance of what AFSCME members do is, we’re the ones that keep Minnesotans moving, and we’re the ones that make this whole thing happen.”

As the last member speaker of the morning, Paulson took the opportunity to wrap up the session by making one final point. “This is a hell of a group of people sitting up here and the main focus of me speaking today is to make sure you understand that we can’t rob one to fix the other,” Paulson told Speaker Hortman. “That’s the most important part that needs to be realized.”

Each of these stories touched on the significance of the work AFSCME members do and shined a light on our investment in our families, our coworkers and our communities. The members drove home the point that our ability to do the work that makes Minnesota happen relies on lawmakers’ support of our contracts and of legislation that benefits working people like us - not the rich and powerful. The members also spoke of how our AFSCME family and our shared union values give them the support they need in order to provide these crucial services to Minnesotans across the state.