Union Strong spirit fills PEF convention, inspiring delegates, contract team
BY SHERRY HALBROOK
A “Union Strong” spirit lifted the nearly 650 delegates to PEF’s 41st Annual Convention and swept them through all four days of the event that was held September 15-18 this year. The whirlwind of convention activities at PEF conventions can be exhausting, but delegates to this convention, which was held in Albany for the first time, seemed to be even more energized and exhilarated when it ended than when it began.
Not only did speakers at the event contribute to that energy and sense of purpose, the focus on unity and purpose behind PEF’s PS&T Contract Team dominated business every day, as speakers, delegates and leaders returned to it over and over again.
No one worked harder to make this event – always the culmination of a year of tireless effort – than Vice President Sharon V. DeSilva and the PEF Convention Committee that included deputy chair Joe Fox, Stephanie Champagne, Sharon Lamb, Ken Ferro, Anna Schrom, Joe Ugino, Gwendolyn Culpepper and Darryl Stevenson.
DeSilva – who also chairs and handles PEF’s statewide labor-management efforts, created a PEF member job satisfaction survey that was distributed to all of the delegates in their convention bags.
“We hope this survey will collect information that helps PEF improve your work life and will lead to productive discussions with representatives at your agencies,” DeSilva wrote on the survey.
Because this convention was held at Albany’s new Capital Center, located just down the hill from the state Capitol and the Empire State Plaza, the delegates decided to walk up the hill on their Tuesday (Sept. 17) lunch break to stop on the steps of the NYS Museum for a group photo.
Another notable aspect of this 2019 convention was the spirit of creative expression that kept popping up. PEF Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie opened her report by singing a stirring version rendition of a familiar folk song with lyrics she tailored to PEF and its efforts to achieve a fair contract. Vice President Sharon V. DeSilva recited a poem during a plenary session that she had written for the convention, and later she recited another of her poems at the Multi-Cultural event for delegates.
PEF Trustee Maddie Shannon-Roberts, Executive Board member John Thomsen and PEF staff member Nicole Harris each led the delegates in singing the National Anthem on various days of the convention. Delegate Victoria Stockton, who teaches at the state School for the Deaf in Utica, brought a group of her students who performed “America the Beautiful” and other music for the delegates. And PEF was led for the first time by a Hindu priest in the convention’s opening invocation. It was presented by Shridhara Jayateerthachar.
Nothing rocked the delegate body more strongly than the impassioned comments of PEF Contract Team Chair Darlene Williams and PEF President Wayne Spence who declared they would no longer stay at the negotiating table unless the state’s negotiators begin to bargain seriously.
“They tried to speak to us as if we are not important,” Williams said. “But more than 1,000 members came out and marched with us at the Labor Day parades. You stood up and supported us then, just like you did with our #Fridays and our Members in Black campaigns. Management saw that, and it did remove some of its demands (for give backs).
“We remind the state, each time we sit at the bargaining table,” Williams said, “that we run the state! And we deserve better!”
Spence said that while the state had offered a small pay raise, it was demanding that members shoulder such a big increase in their health care costs that the members would end up with a 6 percent net loss.
“I want to tell them to “Go kick rocks!” Williams said. “We’re not going to take scraps. We want substance. “
“Give us direction,” she implored the delegates. “Is it scraps? Or fight?”
The building resounded with the shouts of “FIGHT!!” from the convention floor as the delegates stomped their feet and pounded their tables.
“We will let the governor know that, ‘We will no longer take his scraps!’“ Williams said.
She and Spence told the delegates that they must rally their fellow union members to support the team.
“Don’t leave us up the creek without a paddle!” they implored. The next day, paddles (oars) were handed out and signed by each delegate to signify their personal commitment to the fight.
Spence spoke of the litany of unfair management practices that many PEF members endure and that PEF wants to address through the contract negotiations. He cited the state’s penchant for hiring people into temporary positions with hourly pay and very little access to the contractual benefits provided to permanent PS&T employees such as location pay and annual step increases in pay.
These so-called “temporary” hourly employees were hired with expectation that they would be able to take a civil service exam and be transitioned to permanent status, but they often go five or 10 years without that opportunity even though they are doing exactly the same work as permanent employees.
“This won’t be easy!” Spence warned the delegates. “I hear from some members who want a contract now, but other unions have held out for three or four years to get the terms their members wanted. We’ve just started (the 2016-19 contract expired April 1 of this year0. Nothing good comes easily or quickly. If we want what we deserve, we will have to fight for it.”
The president pointed out that a fair contract is not the only thing PEF wants from the governor.
“What good is a contract, if they privatize our jobs?” Spence said. He reminded delegates that PEF has secured the support of state legislators who have repeatedly passed the union’s Cost-Benefit Analysis Bill that would require state agencies to stop and carefully consider if work could be done at less cost by state employees before they just hand it off to private consultants and contractors.
“We hope the governor will see the value of this bill and sign it,” Spence said. Both the state Senate and Assembly passed the bill again this year and they have not yet sent it to the governor. Last year, and in previous years, they have been vetoed.
Spence also reported on the union’s successful effort to stop a bill that would have seriously impeded the ability of state parole officers to help the parolees they supervise to make a safe return to their communities as they near the end of their prison sentences.
That bill – dubbed the Less Is More Bill – would “make it nearly impossible for parole to do its job” said Spence, who is a state parole officer. “It’s not over,” he cautioned. “Sen. (Brian) Benjamin (the bill’s sponsor) has told me he will put this bill in again. But this time, he wants to meet with our parole officers to discuss what this bill should look like.”
Five state legislators and other public officials spoke to the delegates at the PEF President’s Reception on the opening night of convention, followed by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on Monday and state Attorney General Letitia (Tish) James Wednesday. Albany Common Council President Corey Ellis officially welcomed them to Albany.
The delegates also heard from keynote speaker Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which is one of PEF’s two parent unions (the Service Employees International Union is the other parent and international affiliate of PEF). Weingarten’s comments were uncommonly personal as she appeared by Skype, having just lost a family member during the previous night. Nevertheless, speaking from her home, Weingarten generously made time to answer questions from a number of PEF delegates who went to the mics to speak with her after she concluded her keynote address.
AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus also addressed the delegates during a plenary session, and she was among numerous guest speakers and presenters at various convention-related events such as the luncheons held for nurses and veterans, a multi-cultural event and workshops.
The delegates thoroughly reviewed and revised PEF’s agendas for state and federal legislation in 2020 before adopting them. They also dealt with 11 resolutions proposed by members earlier this year, and the delegates adopted an amendment to the PEF constitution and bylaws. They heard reports on the state of the union, its finances and its plans for the future. They heard how the challenge posed to public-sector unions by the Janus v. AFSCME court decision has made PEF stronger, rather than weaker. They heard the annual report from PEF’s three trustees. Delegates attended departmental meetings and Tuesday evening they were offered eight workshops dealing with a wide range of subjects such as how division treasurers should manage finances, ways to reduce stress and new opportunities to plan for and manage their future pensions.
The days were so jam-packed with work and passion that a relieved Spence told the delegates in the convention’s final minutes that he had begun that morning believing they would surely not even be able to begin the work of dealing with resolutions. Instead, they got through them all, concluding a few minutes before the convention was scheduled to end.
The delegates used those final moments to hear a report that they had personally donated more than $1,400 to support striking UAW (United Auto Workers) at General Motors, and approximately $3,000 for Unity House of Troy Inc., a Capital District charity. Spence added that extra food the union had ordered for an event the previous night had been donated to the Capital Mission, which feeds homeless and other hungry residents of Albany.
Sam Shipherd of Unity House thanked the delegates “for helping people in need. You make me so proud to live in a state that’s union strong!”
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