2020 was a tough year for AFGE locals, including Local 1633 representing employees at Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center and its clinics and nursing home in Houston, Texas.
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak at the facilities, hundreds of employees were out all at once. Some were infected and out sick. Some were on ventilators. Some were under quarantine. Some were monitored for a possible infection. At the end of the year, they lost one doctor and two nurses to the deadly virus.
It was the same time when the previous administration took away three out of the local’s five union spaces – two at the two clinics and one at the main hospital. The administration also drastically cut hours union reps could use to handle workplace issues like grievances and health and safety. The local was down to two union reps from 10, and those two had fewer hours than ever to deal with the chaos of managing workplace issues at multiple facilities employing 5,000 workers.
As if that wasn’t tough enough -- hundreds of employees either retired or left, mostly because they didn’t get the support they needed to fight the pandemic and protect veterans and themselves. They were done risking their lives when the administration failed to protect them.
“It was really tough,” said Local 1633 President Michael King.
Amid the chaos, Local 1633 was one of a dozen AFGE VA locals that managed to grow last year -- recruiting 575 new members. How did they do it?
How did they do it? Never stop organizing!
They never stopped organizing and asking people to join.
The local’s main organizing event was a New Employee Orientation, which they held every two weeks the entire year.
Because the hospital lost so many employees, the VA started hiring full-time and temporary employees every day. The local used this opportunity to organize and maintain union visibility.
Because these are medical facilities and most employees had to be physically present, the local was able to hold the NEOs in person, which King said was key.
King said his local didn’t do anything differently last year than the years before. They just kept organizing like they have always done.
Today, more than 80% of employees have been vaccinated. With more people coming back to the hospital and the state opening up, he hopes to continue to organize even more employees.
The story of Local 1633’s growth shows that local unions can grow their membership and their power no matter what obstacles we face. Workers are eager to join our union and support our efforts to secure better pay, benefits, a strong retirement, and dignity, fairness, and respect on the job. All we have to do is ask.
Are you an AFGE local that’s ready to grow and take power back?
Check out our NOW page and find all kinds of tools to help you build power both online and in person.
We’ve got two short years to capitalize on AFGE majorities in both houses of Congress and a friendlier administration in the White House.
We’ve got to seize on the fierce urgency of NOW – making sure our union is big enough and strong enough that we never face attacks like we did the last four years.
We’re already racking up major victories in the Biden administration, but we’ve got to get back to growing our union and our collective power. NOW is the time.