Public Service Unions Should Build Community Watchdog Coalitions

by Whitney D

The problem for workers in any public service job is that it’s all too common that managers and employers are one of more of the following flavors of failing leadership:

  • careerists who will do anything to avoid rocking the boat- including failing their workers and the community – as long as they can stay in good favor with the political and economic power they align themselves with
  • idealogues who think the “mission” of an organization is somehow separate from and superior to making sure they take care of their staff
  • greedy CEOs who have figured out how to get rich under the pretense of helping others and could care less if they succeed as long as the check clears
  • those who lack vision and hope because they are so beaten down by a system that protects and elevates everyone listed above

The people actually DOING the work- whether that’s being front lines in the community or supporting behind the scenes- are people who are there because they are driven by a higher sense of responsibility to the community. We are the ones seeing how the impressive plans that voters and donors and community members hear about come to fruition- or don’t.

And we should be screaming this from the mountaintops every chance we get.

When we are saying that the metaphorical house is on fire, it’s not just because we deserve better compensation and better working conditions (even though we absolutely do)- it’s because we recognize that burnout and compassion fatigue are real; that when bad policies prompt our coworkers to quit in droves and take their institutional knowledge with them, the community suffers; that chronic and intentional understaffing hurts those who we claim to serve; that we can’t properly advocate for the right resources and policies when disproportionate mental energy goes to wondering if we can pay our bills; that fear of retaliation for telling a boss their plan is harmful results in everyone suffering; that terrible working conditions for front line workers reflect terrible caretaking conditions of our most vulnerable; that our mental health suffers when we watch corruption and ineptitude permeate the choices of our bosses.

Two unions that have recently taken hold of this framing and run with it successfully are National Nurses United (NNU) and Austin Pets Alive Workers (APAW). NNU consistently includes addressing staffing shortages and the subsequent risks to patients in every demand and press hit. APAW has successfully framed their need for a union as “our working conditions are their [the animals’] living conditions.” They have taken hold of the narrative to build community support for their demands that extend beyond workers’ rights advocates so that members of the community connect to their cause. If, in these cases, nurses are saying they can’t take care of their patients and animal caregivers are saying animals in their care can’t be humanely cared for, their organizing and mobilizing and demanding now creates an open invitation to support from everyone else who identifies with their cause.

But why do this workplace by workplace when we all know we are stronger united? Austin needs a worker led public servant watchdog coalition. City of Austin and Travis County workers through AFSCME 1624, United Workers of Integral Care, National Nurses United, Texas State Employees Union, Education Austin, Austin EMS Association, Austin Pets Alive Workers, Austin Newsguild, and all other workers in public service and community oriented fields- we need to join together and make it known how our ability to serve the community is a direct result of how we are either empowered and respected or dismissed and degraded as workers. Until we band together and build a coalition of community members who stand by us, we will continue to shortchange our power as workers.

So how do we do this? Good community watchdog coalitions are intersectional, intergenerational, and multicultural. They are built on empowering workers and communities based on mutual interests and don’t make assumptions based on people’s political leanings. A strong coalition is open to people and not just organizations- they post information in public places and invite unorganized workers and nonworking community members to plug in. They stick to their value of community and host town halls where they listen as much as they talk; they conduct surveys to identify the social service gaps that the community has identified; they are constantly messaging their theory of change and using that to cross-pollinate with other groups. Good coalitions stay strong in their messaging that our organizing is just as much for the common good as it is for us as workers. And then they stick to that promise with the demands and campaigns they pursue.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I feel comfortable saying that most of us got into the labor movement to advance the common good and got into public service work to do the same. Let’s spell it out for everyone how the fates of both are inextricably tied and invite them to demand better of our bosses alongside us.

Whitney D has spent 20 years in public service of various kinds: teacher, school support staff, animal welfare non-profits, Austin Public Health and now Travis Country Health and Human Services. Like most public service workers, she (wisely) hasn’t done this with visions of wealth but because she wants to be able to make a respectable living while making a meaningful and positive impact in her community.

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