It was 1970, and the field staff working for AFSCME were angry. They didn’t object to the long hours or the months spent away from home during organizing drives. What they did object to was favoritism. There was no system for pay or assignments. The director’s favorites received the plum assignments – and higher pay. The staff had no voice and no grievance procedure. So they organized a union – the American Independent Staff Union AISU – to make sure that everyone was treated fairly, to get away from the patronage system.
AFSCME officially recognized the new union in January 1971. The top brass, of course, were not particularly happy about having a unionized staff. In one round of bargaining, a manager bragged about the thousands of members he had organized single-handedly. He complained about USU’s requests for additional staff and resources for what he saw as such an easy job. One USU team member responded, “Shucks! The only thing you ever organized is this staff union.” Impressed by the gains AISU won for Its members, AFSCME’s headquarters staff decided to join. They were recognized as a separate AISU unit In 1973, and in 1974, AISU became the United Staff Union.
Initially, USU’s two units operated rather autonomously. There was tension between the field unit and the headquarters unit. As they faced management over the bargaining table and at grievance hearings, the two groups realized, that they had much in common – and that together they became a stronger force. In the 1980s, USU negotiated a classification system. Up till that time, there was no method for setting wages. Two workers could sit next to each other doing the same job with one being paid $18,000 and the other bringing home $50,000.
The new system brought some order out of the pre-existing chaos. Our union was always concerned about the problems facing unrepresented AFSCME staff: We reached out to International project staff, Field Support clerical employees, and organizers-in-training – all of whom are now USU members.
One of our early members described the impact of USU: ‘It was a vehicle that brought the diversity of the union together. In attempting to get on the same page, it forced equality and opportunity and brought the heart and the soul of AFSCME together. Even through the tumultuous years, we stuck it out because we loved it and it was our cause.” For years, there was very high turnover among AFSCME’s professional staff.
So it is safe to say that our union has impacted the lives of thousands, with every job we saved and every benefit we won, we built a more solid foundation for our union. Now it is up to us, the current USU members, to build upon the foundation we have inherited. By speaking out for ourselves and supporting our sisters and brothers, we will create a stronger union – one that will improve the quality of life for our members and give them the tools to fight for AFSCME’s members today and into the future.