AFSCME Challenger Alice Goff on Politicians, Concessions, and Defending Public Workers

Alice Goff is running for AFSCME secretary-treasurer with presidential candidate Danny Donohue, against incumbent Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders and his running mate Laura Reyes. Convention delegates will vote Thursday. Photo: Thor Swift.

AFSCME delegates will vote Thursday at their convention in Los Angeles for a new president to replace 30-year incumbent Gerry McEntee.

Both Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders, McEntee’s heir apparent, and Danny Donohue, president of a big AFSCME local for New York state blue-collar workers, have chosen women as their running mates.

Labor Notes interviewed Alice Goff, running for secretary-treasurer with Donohue. Goff began her activist career as a shop steward in Local 3090 while working for the Los Angeles Police Department. She has been president of her local since 1994 and of AFSCME Council 36 since 2003.

Donohue and Goff have cast themselves as reformers seeking to break with the “Washington insider” strategy of the McEntee administration and have called for a re-evaluation of the union’s political endorsements and a shift of resources from national to local electoral fights.

Donohue’s critics say his track record as president of the 272,000-member Civil Service Employees Association suggests he may not be the reformer he claims to be. Last summer, facing the threat of layoffs, he led CSEA to take major concessions. Givebacks included a three-year wage freeze, increased health care contributions, and nine furlough days over two years—all without a no-layoffs guarantee.

In addition, under Donohue’s watch Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “Tier 6” pension plan was passed, raising the retirement age for new hires and increasing their pension contributions. CSEA launched an anti-Tier 6 ad campaign and held rallies in opposition, but critics say he should have secured an agreement from Cuomo not to push such legislation when the union agreed to concessions.

Tier 6 was passed by a Democratic majority in the state Assembly, and Senate Democrats were absent for the vote.

Saunders’s critics point to his long career in the AFSCME bureaucracy, saying years of complacency didn’t prepare the public sector union for the assault it now faces. They criticize his tenure as head of the behemoth District Council 37 in New York City while it was under administratorship, saying he did nothing to address an undemocratic voting system that was at the root of corruption problems. They paint him in McEntee’s mold, linking him to the 77-year-old president’s lavish spending of members’ dues on personal perks.

Labor Notes asked Alice Goff how the Donohue/Goff ticket would make a difference for AFSCME members.

What is the biggest challenge facing AFSCME members right now?

I think it’s apathy. As a union, we’ve been able to do well for a long time. We’ve been able to secure good contracts with wage and benefit packages but obviously, as the economy has turned and it’s much more difficult to do those things, from an individual perspective it’s like “why am I losing anything? What is the union doing?”

So for us the challenge of apathy is the challenge of having the general public recognize the importance of public services and of the people who provide those services. Being able to promote public services, being able to promote our members and get our members more involved in their local, is going to be a challenge.

We have a great coalition in L.A. of five or six different unions that formed when we were going through our contract negotiations three years ago. We worked with ministerial alliances because many of our members are members of their congregation. We had opportunities to visit churches, to provide information. Ministers came to our rallies, they spoke at city council. The people who depended on and who receive the services need to know what it would be like to not have them or to have those services severely reduced.

Concessions are being forced on public workers across the country, including Donohue’s own local, which was one of the first to take concessions in New York. You’ve both said you want to fight concessions. How do you plan to do that?

You fight it in that it’s not the Draconian kind of cuts that management or the local politicians would like to see. You fight it by strong negotiations. We have to be realistic. We are not going to be able to maintain all of what we have, but at the same time, we do it in a way that is not so hurtful to our members.

In New York, they had already done different layers of pensions, so this last one that was imposed by the governor was really a late-at night-imposition. And there are still repercussions for Danny because he immediately pulled all support for the governor.

Similarly, here in California we worked to help get Governor Jerry Brown elected. And with some of the cuts he’s making, we are trying to figure out “who is this guy after all?” But with times being what they are, we can’t continue to say “no cuts, no cuts, no cuts.” We have to be smart about how we deal with these folks.

I can give you an example in the city of LA. This is supposedly a union-friendly mayor, a union organizer out of the teachers union. He’s also singing the tune of what he’s calling “major pension reform” by increasing retirement age, and actually pointing to the ugly propositions in San Diego and San Jose as models.

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Our members are now contributing toward retiree health care, but what we got for that was a guarantee of that benefit, because the way the charter was written, it was not a guarantee. There was nothing that said that in two years they would have to continue that. What they wanted was much higher than what we ultimately settled at. Our members now pay 4 percent to our retiree health care, but with a guaranteed benefit. So I think how you fight it is tough, strong bargaining.

Do you think that that approach is working? You may not have lost the benefit but it’s being eroded.

We have no intention of moving any further on it. This was a significant move and it says to the city “we’ve done our part, we’ve given our share, it’s up to you to manage and look at your other spending.” And that’s part of why we’ve been successful in this budget cycle in preventing layoffs. We had already made concessions that allowed them to get through to the next budget cycle but they had not ended any of their extravagant spending or made cuts in the areas where they could and should have. That was our message to the public. And that’s part of why we need to have good community alliances and PR, to talk about the need for public services and the people who provide them.

How do you plan to put pressure on elected officials who are seeking to cut those services?

Often, while we say to hold politicians accountable, we don’t. We don’t to the extent of calling them out publicly when they take positions that are contrary to the needs of workers and working families and we continue to support and contribute. We continue to endorse them.

Just as Danny did in New York with the governor, we need to withhold the financial support or severely reduce it and/or pull our endorsements.

Sometimes we just say, “Hell, if it’s not this guy then the other guy is 10 times worse.” Why aren’t we training up our own union members to run for those positions?

Myself and several other leaders of AFSCME affiliates had a meeting with the governor. The governor has come out with his nine-point pension reform plan. One or two may be good but for the most part, no. So our position to him was, you don’t need to do that legislatively. We should be doing that at the bargaining table.

Having our members equipped to lobby, to have our position understood by the public, is how we get a groundswell of support for anything we try to do with the legislature. They’re not going to do it just because we walk in there and meet with them. They’re going to do it because they feel pressure from their constituents. But their constituents are not going to speak for us if they don’t know what the issues are. And so our members need to be trained and comfortable in going out and speaking to gain the support we need.

You’ve mentioned the need for mobilizing and direct action—what do you mean by that?

Yesterday I went down to San Diego. Our members there were very involved in precinct walking in their communities to talk about what the difference in the city would be based on who the mayor is: what kind of services you would have, what quality of life you would have.

Our members need to be inspired to get out there in the streets. Either doing precinct walking or talking on their local radio call-in show or their local TV show or to their local newspaper or emailing a letter to the editor.

If folks are getting the message out and cuts are still being made, what will the union do?

The union will keep on fighting, having those strong positions at the bargaining table. Bring the necessary research, analysis, arguments, positions, suggestions, and a lot of that comes from our folks doing the work. We ask our members to send in their suggestions for efficiency, for savings. Some of this was included in our alternative budget we proposed to the city council. But then we also depend on the experts, the numbers guys who are able to do the analysis of the city budget, to make recommendations on policy decisions.

But if elected officials are not responsive, how do you plan to pressure them? Both on a local and a national level?

Running a public campaign that says these are public services, these should be intact. This is what your legislator is proposing to take away, this is what the workers and the union are doing and proposing.

Who would have thought our labor-friendly mayor [in L.A.] would have come up with a budget that would so negatively impact women? He was at his wit’s end because he was called out, and so the position was ultimately changed. Not by him but by our work with making it public and our work with the city council’s budget and finance committee—we provided alternative budget solutions that were concrete in spending and funding and ideas for efficiency.

What do you mean when you call the McEntee administration “too Washington-centric?”

While we need work done at that level in D.C., we need equal focus at the local level.
The decision-making as to how the resources are spent definitely needs to be addressed. We also need that effective representation on the local level. Does it mean a redistribution of resources? I think it does.

What do you hope to come out of a second Obama administration?

Improvement on health care reform, immigration reform, because some of that impacts the wages and working conditions. More worker protections, stronger enforcement of labor laws. The ability to organize without the interference from the employer. We’re really pushing for card check neutrality.

How will AFSCME respond if these things don’t happen?

We would then have to make a very public fight or a very public demand.

When the fight for health care was going on, the opposition took to the streets, to the airwaves, they went to every possible meeting that they could. Distorted as their message was, folks heard it, and they said it enough that some people believed some of it. That’s where we fall down. We’re not as visible putting our message out there. We could stand to do a lot more PR work and that’s what I mean by getting out there.