It was the energy of the crowd that got Beverly Wilmer excited. That fall afternoon, people emerged from the building in droves to join an informational picket calling on the Reagan administration to give them a well-deserved cost of living adjustment. Back then, SSA employees and other feds were getting very little or no COLAs. The AFGE local had prepared and distributed picket signs, and somebody led the crowd in chants.
Wilmer was already a member, but at that moment, something clicked.
“I felt like I was a part of a movement. I also felt that I should be doing more than just being part of the crowd,” she recalls. “A friend suggested that I become a steward. That’s what ignited the flame for me.”
That brief moment in 1987 shaped her entire career. She became a union rep for AFGE Local 2006 in Philadelphia. Her part in the labor movement grew day by day, and in 2002, she took on more responsibilities and became president of her local.
As organizing is a big part of the local, it’s not a surprise that the local has 821 members out of the 850 in the bargaining unit, making it one of the most effective locals in AFGE.
How did they do it?
“We encourage them to join by promoting the many benefits of union membership. We also rely on AFGE publications that emphasize our political presence and our accomplishments at the national level,” she explains.
In addition, the local heavily promotes what it’s doing for members and keeps members informed of its big wins on social media, bulletin boards, and at membership meetings. For example, it just won huge settlements for bargaining unit employees on merit promotion, distribution of awards, and discrimination against employees with disabilities. All these wins have served as great talking points for organizing.
“We tell the employees that they did not need to hire a lawyer or take a day off and go to court to get these cash settlements. The union did all of the work for them,” she adds.
Union fairs, new employee orientation, and Lunch and Learns are great organizing tools, but union reps also walk up to potential members and ask them to join, she notes.
Fully aware that they are the face of the union, union reps always act professionally on and off the clock.
“Not all organizing is done in a formal setting. Sometimes employees will come to you andask to join based on how well your local presents itself,” she adds.
Committed to growing AFGE, the local became one of the first Big Enough to Win locals in the union earlier this year. The local has already incorporated many of the ideas in the Big Enough to Win plan. They believe in having a strong local with trained officers and stewards – all of whom are organizers. Local 2006 undoubtedly did its part to help AFGE reach the 300,000 membership mark.
To maintain and grow the union, Wilmer emphasizes the need to recruit the next wave of activists, some of whom will become future leaders of the union.
But even a super local like Wilmer’s faces challenges in organizing. With grievances, EEO complaints, meetings, etc., it is hard to set aside time for organizing events, she says.
In addition to serving as the president of her local, Wilmer serves as the Regional Vice President for AFGE Council 224 and the 1st Vice President for the National Council of Payment Service Center Locals - Council 109.
She is also a proud member of the AFGE Human Rights Committee serving as the National Women’s Advisory Coordinator for District 3 and the Chairperson of the National Women’s Advisory Committee. She’s an active member in the Philadelphia Labor Council, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.
With so many hats she’s wearing, what keeps her going and motivated?
“I am motivated and inspired by those union activists who have been in the labor movement for decades and paved the way, as well as those Y.O.U.N.G. activists who are passionate about labor and bringing in new ideas,” she says. “I am extremely motivated and inspired by those activists who have gone to jail or died fighting for a cause.”
The night before she began her SSA career in March 1980, her dad, who was Chief of the Finance Department at the Department of Veterans Affairs at the time, told her to make sure she joined her union. Obviously, she did more than just joining.