Resisting abusive managers, PEF fights back
By DEBORAH A. MILES
For quite some time, PEF members who work at the state Department of Labor in one of Manhattan’s skyscrapers on Varick Street have been silently steaming about the way their managers and supervisors have been disrespecting them.
Much of the silence was due to fear of retaliation. But just as anything that brews for a long time, there is a boiling point. On November 1, when a membership meeting was held, that’s when issues spilled out.
PEF’s leadership first got wind of the working conditions when one employee sent an anonymous letter to PEF President Wayne Spence, describing abusive, unprofessional conduct by DOL’s managers and supervisors.
PEF Statewide Director of Field Services Michael Farrell organized the November membership meeting with Council Leader Scarlett Ahmed and stewards Jose Medina and Michael Marquez. They informed members about PEF’s campaign to vote against the state holding a constitutional convention.
Mostly, they listened as members talked about being treated like school children, the effects of short staffing such as being hassled for taking a lunch break, asking permission to use the restroom and continuous disrespect.
“The whole purpose of the meeting was to show local managers and supervisors that the union exists, because sometimes they act like we don’t,” Ahmed said. “The person who wrote to President Spence was so scared, he was afraid to give his name to the president of his union.
“At this lunchtime meeting, we encouraged people to be braver and to speak to their stewards. My members are starting to come together. DOL is tricky. Management wants them to think they should be grateful just to have a job. They are afraid to talk to me or give me their full names or cell phone number. It is very strange because the Department of Labor is supposed to be protecting the rights of workers, and yet their own workers feel this way.”
The meeting ended with Farrell leading the approximately 70 members in a “union clap,” where they start out quiet and slow, and then get much louder. Uncertain if the managers and supervisors heard them, they left the room and walked throughout the office. They introduced themselves to each supervisor and manager, and let them know in a respectful way that PEF supports its workers, and the abusive behavior must stop.
Ahmed said members are realizing that by embracing their union, they become empowered to protect their negotiated rights and human dignity. Six people filed petitions directly to DOL Commissioner Roberta Reardon, and included their names along with written statements that focused on how management tolerated a toxic environment, allowing staff to be harshly reprimanded.
“People have been told, ‘If I don’t like you, you’ll never get promoted.’ Various things were not put in writing, so no one could be held accountable,” Ahmed said.
“Some of my members and stewards were so angry and upset about the disrespect shown to workers, that they were ready to park the ‘Scabby the Rat’ balloon in front of the building. If necessary, we will save that for a later time to draw more attention.
“We will see if the situation improves, but we have their attention now. The commissioner has promised to listen to her staff. Before, we were not getting phone calls returned from the head of employee relations, but now we are. And a manager informed us DOL will be hiring more staff, and managers and supervisors will attend a Respectful/Sensitivity Communication Training workshop.”
Ahmed’s advice to other council leaders in the same position is to use old-fashioned union tactics.
“That means getting members together, really listening to them one-on-one or in a group, taking their complaints and trying to use formal contract venues such as grievances,” she said. “If that doesn’t work, you have to get louder. Maybe some won’t appreciate that, but sometimes you have to get loud to earn respect. That is what the workers deserve.”