The City of Pensacola has a new union. On Feb. 17, city workers voted to unionize with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The union was backed by the workers 102-47, a 70-percent margin, which is in significant contrast to the failed attempt to unionize the city workers by UNITE HERE eight years ago.
The economy, recent budget cuts to workers’ compensation and benefits, and the erosion of trust between the workers and senior city leadership fueled the victory. While the Pensacola police officers’ pay and benefits are protected by the Fraternal Order of Police and the local firefighters by the International Association of Firefighters, workers in various positions in the city, such as Energy Services of Pensacola, Parks & Recreation and Public Works, have been subject to large cuts since 2007.
AFSCME is one of the larger labor unions in the country and has over 3,500 councils throughout the country. Members of each local union compose their own constitution and elect their own officers.
“The organizing started because a lot of the employees had gone a period of time in which the budget cuts affected us. That’s really where this stems from,” said Kim Aguiar, Lead Worker for Parks & Recreation and new interim president for the local AFSCME. “As an employee, dignity and respect are first and foremost. As civil servants, we fall in line. We just want to be thought of that way.”
Of the 166 general employees in the city, many have seen their compensation and benefits cut. Some had their longevity pay taken away. Many were reduced from 740 hours of leave time to 560 hours. Most had not received step raises in the past four years, and it has been proposed that those raises be withheld an additional two years.
“The workers contacted AFSCME, and we went from there,” said AFSCME Council 79 organizer Josh LeClair. The organizing effort began in the fall of 2010 and has been in the works since. “There are some problems that were across the board, including loss of their step pay,” LeClair told IN. “The police and firefighters were safe from some of the cuts in pay, due to them being in a union. That was polarizing for the general laborers.”
“Some of the problems were separated by different departments,” LeClair continued. “There were all sorts of policies that were unfairly implemented. One department would be strict while another wouldn’t. If certain departments work overtime, some would pay overtime, others would not pay, while others would only pay partial amounts.”
In support of the workers, local college students held demonstrations at workplaces and encouraged workers to vote in favor of the union. Lee Pryor, organizer for the Progressive Student Alliance and delegate for the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, was able to organize a handful of locals enrolled in Pensacola State College and the University of West Florida.
“A couple of weeks before the vote, the PSA was contacted by AFSCME. We jumped aboard near the end of the campaign for external support,” Pryor told IN. Students demonstrated the day before and the day of the election outside the Field Service Center on North Palafox Street. Participants held signs with slogans such as, “Vote ‘Yes’ For Justice.”
Despite the large amount of support the union received from city workers, organizers spoke about how difficult it was at first to work with city employees. “One of the things we realized early was how hard it was to get in touch with some of the workers,” said LeClair. “Some of these workers were working two or three jobs. To be able to find them and talk to them proved to be a really difficult task. That was probably the biggest obstacle in our organizing campaign.”
Aguiar also pointed out another major factor that hindered their abilities. She noted, “Participation is difficult because of the pressure that we get from the city. Over a period of time a culture forms. There are trust issues. Workers couldn’t say what they wanted to say without some kind of repercussion if it’s not in line with management.”
Pryor remained a little more critical of local government and pointed towards the anti-organizing efforts of the city. He stated, “It’s not so much that they have forgotten the workers. It is more that they don’t care about the people keeping the infrastructure intact. Some of these workers have not seen raises in five years, and now they are trying to eliminate accrued hours that workers can gain over time.”
He stated that while the city is quick to cut the pay for workers, they should consider cutting salaries of the managers and higher officials—for example, the Mayor and City Manager.
Now that the union has been voted in, and the local officials have been elected, the time has begun for collective bargaining between the workers and their bosses. “It’s all up to the workers what will be brought to the table,” said LeClair. “They are all concerned about retaining their insurance and getting their longevity pay back.”
Pryor also thinks that the recent vote will encourage other workers, locally and nationally, to follow in the footprints of the city workers as national events in the labor movement like those in Wisconsin make headlines, and budget-cut proposals that target state, county and municipal workers become more common. “It’s going to galvanize the community and the labor movement, especially when they are being attacked by Rick Scott. With all of these budget cuts going on, it will help mobilize people to fight back,” stated Pryor.
A celebration took place the night of the vote at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 676. Officials were elected, workers discussed what the future held for them, and everyone showed their gratitude for the work of AFSCME and of those who participated and voted for the union.
Aquiar said at the celebration, “We are really happy about the vote, and we are ready to move forward.”