‘We Wouldn’t Have Anything If It Weren’t for Our Union’

 Member-provided photo.

Pictured: Keith Kracht. Photo Credit: Member-provided photo.

When he first took a job at the Centralia Correctional Center in Illinois, Keith Kracht knew that a career in public service wouldn’t make him a millionaire. But then again, that’s not why he went into public service.

All he wanted was a stable job, a middle-class income to support his family and the chance to serve his community. He knew that a job in corrections would be inherently dangerous and that it wouldn’t be a job he could do in old age, so the health and retirement benefits that came with it were important to him and his family.

For more than a decade, Kracht has worked at Centralia – first as a correctional officer, then as a correctional educator – and been able to live his modest dream, the dream of many Americans: to raise a family, make a decent living and retire with dignity.

Yet, since 2014, Illinois’ billionaire governor has threatened to destroy that dream. “What he wanted was to balance the state budget on our backs,” says Kracht. “And that wasn’t a fair shake.”

Backed by powerful corporations and special interests, Gov. Bruce Rauner would most likely have succeeded by now if not for tens of thousands of public service workers across the state, like Kracht and his co-workers, who are members of AFSCME Council 31 and are standing together to protect their families.

 Member-provided photo.

Pictured: Brittany Adams. Photo Credit: Member-provided photo.

A billionaire bully

Rauner’s threats against public service workers and their unions in Illinois began even before he was elected governor. Brittany Adams, a human services caseworker who works for the state’s Department of Human Services, recalls how outraged she felt.

“When Rauner started making those threats, we were angry because he’s a billionaire and we’re public service workers,” she says. “We know we’re not going to be rich with these jobs. We just want to make a decent living. And he’s campaigning, saying negative things about public service workers, how we don’t deserve our salaries. He’s a billionaire and we’re just trying to make a decent living. It was infuriating!”

At the time, Adams had just started a career in public service. She had studied psychology in college, had graduated with a degree in social work and wanted a job in which she could help people.

“I wanted to assist people in need in my community,” she says. “When I first got my interview for this job, I was super excited because this is what I wanted to do. It was a step forward in my life.”

 In the last four years, Rauner has threatened to cut state employee pay and double health care insurance premiums. Adams wonders what would happen to her if he got his way on even one of those threats.

“When he first threatened to double what we pay for health insurance, I worried because I would have had to decide whether to pay insurance or pay my rent,” she says. “I really could not have paid my rent otherwise. It was ridiculous. He also wanted to cut our pay, in which case I would have made no money. I would have gotten nothing to take home.”

Adams and her co-workers have been able to fend off these attacks because they’ve stood together in their union.

“When I started working five years ago, I didn’t even know what a union was,” she says. “Now I realize that we as state workers, we wouldn’t have anything if it weren’t for our union.”

Adams says she feels hopeful in part because Rauner’s attacks have energized people like her to become more active in their union.

“I don’t think Rauner realized that we were going to stick together to fight him the way we have,” she says. “He thought he’d come in and destroy us, so he could be on top. But we’re sticking together, and our union is becoming stronger. I’ve seen people who had never been involved in the union and who are getting more involved. When people are angry they want to do something about it.”

Strength in numbers

Like Adams, Kracht also wonders what would have happened to him and his family if state employees hadn’t stayed strong together in their union.

“It’s definitely a difficult thing to be at DEFCON 1 the entire time,” he says, “but that’s where we’ve been. Rauner continues to press more than one attack at any given time. And so, we have to continue to hold our own and stand together. That’s where our strength lies.”

Rauner’s corporate-backed special interest allies even launched a campaign making deceptive claims, attempting to convince state workers to drop out of their union. Opponents know that unions are obligated to represent every worker equally, even when they aren’t members. So, to weaken the bargaining power of public service workers, they try to convince union members to stop paying dues.

Kracht is confident that AFSCME members will prevail if they stick together in their union. “Even when things got tough, we didn’t take the bait, and we didn’t let them divide us,” he says.

“This is a people-power-versus-money-power fight,” he says. “Rauner’s got the money, but we’ve got the numbers. Sticking together and maintaining our power in numbers has been the only reason we have we been able to hold him off this long.”