Little Rock When the forty leaders at the 34th Annual Local 100 Leadership Conference, held this year in Little Rock, were asked how many of them were carrying medical debt, more than half of the hands in the room went up. When asked how many had family, friends, or neighbors dealing with the burden of medical debt, all of the hands went up! No surprise that there was enthusiasm for Local 100’s twin initiatives of establishing citizen wealth centers and launching a campaign in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas around hospital accountability to provide charity care and financial assistance.
There were some interesting surprises though. In a plenary discussion of the union’s partnerships and initiatives in campaigning for living wages for state workers, school workers, and all of our workers with different strategies, mentioning that many of the union’s struggles were with charter schools triggered an impromptu discussion and deep criticism of charter schools from leaders throughout our geography. Many repeated the promises that had led them to enroll their children in charters in their search for the best for their kids, but it was almost tragic to listen to the profound disappointment they felt with the results. In one case the lost year seemed a setback in math and science that had led a promising child to remedial work in a community college now. In another case, fleeing the charter disaster meant two months out of school waiting for a place to open back up in a former school. The disillusionment with young, inexperienced teachers and a constant churning of the staff was also acute. Many of Local 100’s leaders had drunk the Kool-Aid and were now spitting it up, which augurs poorly for the future of charters.
The discussion got back eventually to the recent victory in Houston Independent Schools where on a 6-1 vote we won a starting wage of $10 per hour for all employees. The union is now targeting a special effort for the cafeteria workers to increase hours, since even with the raise, they are not getting enough hours to equal a living wage.In Arkansas we have identified 900 state workers under $10 and are making headway there. Neil Sealy, the executive director of Arkansas Community Organizations, joined the discussion with us as a partner along with KABF radio on this campaign. He reported on ACORN’s victory for Pine Bluff city and contract workers where wages are over $12 now thanks to a city referendum several years ago. Dallas indicated that they had identified 1000 workers making less than $13 per hour in the schools there that they are targeting.
Before the end of the meeting there was a union wide commitment to see if the new NLRB rules on quicker elections will make a difference. Nursing home workers in Arkansas seem to be stirring, and the union is looking at whether this might be a good test.
Anytime a meeting ends with a dinner that includes catfish fried in front of us, tender beef brisket, and homemade peach cobbler, you know you are in Arkansas and you know it was a good meeting!