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AFSCME has long history of union success in S.D.: Huron group organized in 1937

Posted: Monday, Jan 21st, 2013

HURON — Public employees in Huron are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the formation of their union, an organization that has successfully represented them despite ongoing challenges, the executive director said.

“This country has transformed so much in the last three years that South Dakota has one of the better collective bargaining laws in the country at this point,” Matt Miller said Thursday.

He recently assumed the executive directorship of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 59, taking over after a 27-year stewardship by the retiring Paul Aylward.

A Minnesota native who has been with the union for nine years, first as a union organizer in Oklahoma, Kentucky and New Mexico, Miller addressed the Beadle County Democratic Forum on the history and challenges of AFSCME.

While it is the largest union in the country, AFSCME is also one of the main public employee organizations under attack in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.

It was founded in Wisconsin in 1937 as a national organization in response to widespread nepotism and cronyism.

“It was a group of public employees that got fed up with nepotism, got fed up with being pretty much fired every time a new governor was coming around,” Miller said.

Many are unaware that Huron workers formed the first public employees union in the state, also in 1937.

AFSCME represents public employees in all of the major South Dakota cities except Pierre.

Unlike the police and firefighters unions, AFSCME members don’t carry weapons or have giant water hoses, Miller said.

“But we do fix the weapons and we do fix their cars and we make sure the water is running for those guys,” he said. “They can’t do their jobs without us.”

AFSCME in South Dakota is responsible for some of the big labor wins in the state, he said.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is public employees have less rights than private sector employees, with or without unions,” Miller said.

Instead of getting protection from federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, they have to rely on state agencies and state government.

It is also the role of unions to establish and protect those rights.

Miller said a major victory in Bon Homme County defined what good faith bargaining is. “Now every employer has to abide by it,” Miller said. “That was a transformative Supreme Court win.”

Aylward oversaw that case, as well as one before he retired that was a landmark victory over the Sioux Falls School District that led to the payment of more than $250,000 in three years’ worth of back wages.

Miller said school officials tried to get the union to agree to a lower pay rate. That was refused, and the case ended up in the Supreme Court.

“That was a pretty amazing union victory,” he said. “AFSCME has been at the forefront of a lot of wins for employees.”

Dispute resolution is one of the challenges in South Dakota. Grievances, like a wrongful termination, end up in the state Supreme Court.

But there are no timelines in the law, so cases can take years to resolve. The average cost of a dispute on the union side is $20,000, and for employers it’s much more, Miller said.

“So you can see it can get very expensive very quickly,” he said. “But some things you just have to fight if it’s the right thing to do.”

With no deadlines in dispute resolution, people can get frustrated and want to quit and move on. Employers often use delaying tactics.

“Without any timelines in the state law, there’s nothing to guide how long something should take,” Miller said.

Union folks are often asked why they get involved in local elections. It comes down to their personal lives, because with no other place to go for protection, public employees work to try to elect fair and smart leaders in order to have a decent workplace, he said.

“Those people set the regulations, they set the laws that allow us to return home from work at the end of the day,” Miller said.

For the complete article see the 01-18-2013 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 01-18-2013 paper.

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