Social Workers Add Voices to Pro-Union Protests

Galvanized by protests of anti-union legislation and budget cuts in nearby Wisconsin earlier this year, social workers mobilized against regressive proposals in several states, including Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.

Marc HerstandNASW Wisconsin Chapter Executive Director Marc Herstand joined the rallies in Madison numerous times — the chapter’s office is across the street from the Wisconsin Capitol, where thousands of protestors gathered for weeks. Herstand said he is concerned about what will happen to social workers if unions can’t protect them from retaliation for advocating for better working conditions on behalf of their clients.

“Beyond the issue of protecting social workers from losing their jobs,” he said, “we really need unions to fight for living wages and decent benefits for social workers.”

Despite efforts to quash the Republican-led plan in Wisconsin to limit public employees’ collective bargaining rights to wages, the legislature approved the anti-union provision of the “budget repair bill” March 9 using a procedural maneuver to get around Democratic senators leaving the state to avoid a vote. Court challenges are preventing the new law’s enforcement.

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Chapter’s Legislative Social Policy Committee agreed to oppose the budget repair bill and asked members to voice their opposition by contacting their state representatives. The committee also expressed concern over a provision enabling the state’s Department of Health Services to make changes to its Medicaid program, Badger Care, without public input or legislative action.

In Ohio, the Republican-dominated General Assembly also passed legislation in March restricting public employees’ collective bargaining rights to wages. Additionally, the law bans workers from striking.

Danielle Smith, services coordinator for the Ohio Chapter, questioned the timing of her state’s legislation, noting that the assembly passed the bill in record time. “With the economy and the state’s budget being as bad as they are, now wasn’t the time to pass a law that threatens people’s jobs,” Smith said.

After the bill was introduced, the Ohio Chapter sent several emails to members encouraging them to take part in rallies and to contact their legislators to voice their opposition to the bill. Smith said they also encouraged members to wear pins to rallies that say “This Social Worker Votes.”

The chapter’s advocacy efforts have switched gears to urging members to sign a petition calling for a referendum on the law. “It will be an off-year ballot issue so getting the vote out will be important,” Smith said. In addition, the chapter is opposing several state budget proposals that will affect low-income Ohio residents’ access to services.

“For all the chapters, especially those of us in the Midwest, this is a time that social workers need to have a loud and powerful voice. We can’t sit back,” NASW Michigan Chapter Executive Director Maxine Thome told NASW News.

To ease Michigan’s budget woes, that state’s Republican-controlled legislature approved a bill March 9 authorizing emergency financial managers to take over struggling cities and towns. That authority includes being able to terminate public employee union contracts.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, also proposed eliminating the earned income tax credit for low-income families and budget cuts that would decrease access to mental health services.

“I’m horrified,” said Thome, who participated in several press conferences related to the governor’s budget proposals. “What we are seeing very clearly is the eradication of the middle class.”

In Indiana, protestors defeated a Republican effort by to pass a “right-to-work” bill that would prohibit mandatory union membership or fees as a condition for employment. The Republican-controlled House shelved the bill, unable to get a quorum after Democrats left the state and were gone for more than five weeks — longer than Wisconsin Democratic legislators were absent.

Josephine Hughes, executive director of the NASW Indiana Chapter, said the right-to-work bill was discussed at the chapter’s March 2 lobbying day, which drew hundreds of social work professionals, faculty and students to the Capitol in Indianapolis. They also discussed proposed cuts to the state’s Division of Aging, Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

Hughes told NASW News that lawmakers “are so into balancing the budget over the next two years that they’ve lost sight of how these cuts will cost them more money in the end.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 700 bills relating to collective bargaining have been introduced in 48 states and Puerto Rico since January, the start of the current legislative session.