• Lobby hobby

    Yesterday and today, I attended the Nebraska State AFL-CIO annual legislative conference as a delegate from my union. Representatives from several unions were in attendance, and the diversity of policy concerns was staggering. In the current political moment, this was to be expected – even so, there was a lot to absorb.

    On Tuesday we met at the local firefighters’ hall, where my own union holds its monthly area meetings. It’s a sweet venue that I’ll forever associate with free pizza and other craft service. A parade of speakers made presentations on union concerns, industry trends, technological developments, and downstream effects on labor and workers.

    Today was oriented towards a little light lobbying; breakfast, a few morning speakers (all state senators this time), the delegation being recognized by the Unicameral in the legislative chamber, then meeting with lawmakers to discuss policy or, more generally, show union colors and try to get a read on [un]friendly stances towards labor.

    My own senator is on our side, so I stood back while board members from my union felt out those legislators who might be less supportive of our goals, or openly hostile towards labor concerns. I chatted with a few other senators’ staff members, and ultimately a good time was had by all. (One energetically labor-friendly lawmaker called this conference his “favorite day of the year.” It was easy to see that he meant it.)

    I completely burned myself out socially; a good night’s hard sleep will be splendid. I’m sure more thoughts about this conference – and coming ones – will spool out over the coming weeks. It’s possible I’ll have more to say about this or that. Meanwhile, please enjoy a picture of the dragonfly mosaic from our state capitol rotunda.

  • Bargaining, not begging

    Remote work is not a new thing. It certainly predates the COVID-19 pandemic, during which remote work became a topic of consideration at the national level, and the job industry as a whole was rightly shaken into its widespread adoption for the sake of public health, bottom lines, the economy, society as a whole – take your pick.

    I began government work in November 2020. For years before then, the state had remote work policies and agreements in place to allow for hybrid office schedules or 100% remote work. Each department was given latitude to establish its own policy, and my impression is that there was little standardization or uniform application of these policies across divisions. Nebraska law only dictates that each administrative department to be “open for the transaction of business” from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m on Monday through Friday; it does not define specific conditions for meeting the requirement. During my six-month probationary period, while I was ineligible for remote work, I reported daily to our ghost town of a central office.

    At this point I should mention that remote work is not addressed in the labor contract covering an overwhelming majority of state employees. Normally this would make it a subject of mandatory bargaining between the employees’ union and the state.

    A couple weeks before Thanksgiving last year, the governor issued an executive order to compel state employees – excuse me, public servants – to return to the office and, with some precise exceptions, keep a schedule of Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The order is rooted, in part, in the legislative requirement for open hours.

    And then there was this:

    WHEREAS, The COVID-19 pandemic is over, and the people of Nebraska expect their elected leaders to restore Nebraska’s public servant workforce to the posture it was in prior to the pandemic.

    Executive Order No. 23-17
    Bringing Nebraska’s Public Servant Workforce Back to the Office

    It’s obvious bullshit meant to undermine one of the main reasons for expanding remote work capabilities (which the state did, as quickly as only government can, from 2021–2023). Anyway, you’ll have your own thoughts about the pandemic. Meanwhile, the governor had set a hard date for returning to the office.

    In December, after the state denied its demands for immediate bargaining, the labor union took legal action before the Commission of Industrial Relations (CIR): a prohibited practice petition to address the executive order, and a motion for temporary relief to halt implementation of the order until the question of bargaining was settled.

    On the last business day of 2023, the CIR sided with the union and granted its motion for temporary relief, thereby halting the executive order.

    On the first business day of 2024, individual state agencies moved to revoke existing remote work agreements under a policy doctrine of “at any time, for any reason, with or without cause,” ordering employees to return to the office by mid-January.

    One person invoked their “individual authority as head of the department.” This would fly under normal circumstances, because the remote work policies and agreements are written to be entirely at the discretion of departmental leadership. But because this amounted to a direct violation of the CIR order, the union filed suit in District Court; the state responded by pleading ignorance of some specifics in the CIR order. (My thought: multiple variations on shit flinging, to see what might stick.)

    A clarification from the Commission said that yes, the halt order includes application of remote work policies, meaning the status of agreements must remain unchanged from what they were prior to the executive order. People must be allowed to continue working their still-existing hybrid or 100% remote schedules.

    The state has given an impression of relaxing its return-to-office demands until the original prohibited practice petition is heard. But the union went forward with its request for the District Court to hold the state in contempt for violating the CIR order. Closing briefs were due by January 26. A ruling is expected “shortly thereafter.”

    I just wanted to get a concise – no, really – timeline down to organize my thoughts. Maybe we’ll have Popcorn Day at the office every day until the ruling comes down.

    P.S. — All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

  • Civil leave

    Until I got involved with volunteer boards and consumer cooperatives, and took an actual government job, election work was my widest window into self-organization. My family was associated with politics — I attended a birthday party for Haley Barbour long before he was chair of the Republican National Committee — but I failed to heed machinations. (My political leanings have improved with time, at least.)

    I started election work as soon as I was of voting age. A tornado struck outside my hometown and damaged longtime polling places; the election commission established backup locations with something like one day’s notice. My grandmother, who was in charge of organizing poll workers in my home county, asked if I would work at a temporary voting site wedged inside an already cramped convenience store on the edge of town. Having accompanied her to vote in previous elections when I was a child, flipping little green switches and pulling a big red lever, I was happy to help.

    It was a painfully long day, full of lively chit-chat among coworkers (friends of Mamaw’s), handy snacks, and stories of storm damage. At the time, even though multiple-choice bubble sheets had entered our school system, we used the same gear and lever voting machines that my grandmother had used. I finally saw some machinery and relished my job of turning a stubborn crank to print the day’s tally. I found myself enamored of the ground-level work to make government run while still being far removed from where actual policy is made. (As I would eventually come to learn, this is the ideal work condition for me.)

    No matter how heated you get about politics, a day of poll work is a nice cooling-off period. In the midst of the worst muckraking, mudslinging brawls, here is a day spent (by statute) without electioneering, political discussion, TV watching, or listening to the radio. People are funneled into engagement unrelated to the duty at hand, while also actively participating in the wider partisan process — a sort of idealized microcosm.

    After moving around in my early-20s, I ended up here and signed up to be an Election Board worker, spending years as Clerk (verifying voters) and Judge (issuing and receiving paper ballots — we use the bubble sheets here). Eventually I was invited to be a reserve Precinct Inspector: supervising the process, answering questions, and filling in for other Board workers as needed. I never received a permanent — in my county’s case, two-year — assignment to a precinct, instead serving as a roving replacement for other Inspectors who were unable to serve on a given Election Day. It was good, honest fun for years. And then 2016 happened.

    I’ve told this story a couple times — forgive me for repeating myself. I was serving as a Clerk in a suburban precinct. A voter came into line wearing a TRUMP 2016 ball cap. State law is pretty clear on this point — “no electioneering” at polling places — so I asked the man to remove his cap. He went from pasty swagger to boiling, red-faced rage in just a few seconds; utterly unabashed frothing. Our Precinct Inspector came over to see what was happening. He took Rage Face aside and murmured to him for a minute. Rage Face removed his cap and allowed himself to be escorted through the voting process. Afterwards, our Inspector walked him towards the exit, mollifying all the way. At the end, Rage Face put his hat back on at me and said “He can go to hell!” I made sure not to break eye contact while visibly stifling a laugh.

    Afterwards, the Inspector said to me, “Ah well, what can you do?” And my thought was, “Literally anything? The law’s on our side.” As the moment passed, I could clearly see the end of my interest in the job. Something broke through my attachment to the codified neutrality of election work — even though I knew it was always an illusion. I limped along through a few more election cycles and finally, when approached about working this year, I declined and asked to be removed from the election worker roll.

    At the time, I was thinking of my health, which has taken wild turns recently. But beyond that, I feel unable to overcome disaffection. Our legislature passed a bill last year and now we are implementing Voter ID. I want no part in that. Our Election Commissioner resigned, and his replacement was appointed by the Governor. Nothing is neutral and laws aren’t real. In that case, I’d rather do civic work towards progressive self-organization. There’s been a lot of self-loathing in the emotional fallout.

    Last week, as these thoughts caromed around my head, I got a letter from the Election Commission with a certificate acknowledging years of dedicated service. I ugly cried in the kitchen. You’re damn right I’m going to frame it.