Constant, direct communication is what binds you to PEF, and your union to you
By SHERRY HALBROOK
It’s no secret: Nothing matters more in a labor union than its members. And PEF leaders at the division level are finding that nothing matters more in involving members in the union than being in touch with them and keeping them informed about how PEF is working on their behalf at their worksite, their agency and throughout their region and the state.
It sounds like a fairly simple and obvious formula for success, but it is a big, multi-layered challenge that PEF leaders, from stewards to the statewide officers, are constantly working to overcome.
Take PEF Division 236, for instance. It represents more than 900 PEF members in parole-related job titles at the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision throughout New York. That’s a lot of members scattered over huge distances. One way the division is trying to be there for all of those members is by electing two assistant council leaders, one for upstate and another for downstate.
Parole Officer Gina Lopez is the assistant council leader for upstate and she has been hard at work trying to reach out to members in the Rochester area, where she works, and, with the help of others, in Buffalo, too.
Those efforts are paying off. PEF staff in the union’s Region 3 field office were thrilled when Lopez walked in December 5 with PEF membership recommitment cards signed by 79 parole officers mainly from the Rochester area. Just six days later, Lopez showed up again at the field office to deliver 32 more of the recommitment cards. These were signed primarily by Division 236 members working further west, in the Buffalo and Niagara Falls area.
Lopez said she has found the most important thing she can do is “explain to members what we’re doing for them and to keep them informed. It’s also very important to always get back to individual members with answers to their questions.”
Lopez said she wasn’t always so involved in PEF, but when the state Division of Parole was merged into the state Department of Correctional Services a few years ago, she recognized the union was extremely important in helping the members in parole speak up and be heard.
Besides reaching out personally to her fellow parole members in Rochester, Lopez said she sent them letters with the membership recommitment cards to help them understand why it’s important to sign the new cards. She also held a meeting in Buffalo with members along the Niagara frontier in early January to talk with them directly and hear about their issues and concerns.
“These efforts by our local leaders are paying benefits for the members who are being better informed about how they are the union and how they can work together in it to achieve their goals,” said PEF Director of Field Services Organizing Michael Farrell. “These efforts also are paying off for the union by keeping us informed about the members and their needs and concerns. We do our best work when we are all on the same page and focused on the same goals. When we do that, the results are amazing.”
Gina Corona, a licensed master social worker 2 at Hutchings Psychiatric Center in Syracuse, is fully on board with that observation, because she has been putting the same philosophy to work with members of PEF Division 301, where she is division leader and PEF Executive Board representative.
Corona said she has personally found the most important thing she can do to involve members is to reach out to them.
“They need to know why we are asking them to come to meetings and why they should want to be there,” Corona said. “I think it’s all about connecting and being available to members when they need you. Our members are spread over three shifts around-the-clock, and I tell them to call me on my cell phone when they need me. Members help each other get my phone number and reach me. That means I get calls at all hours.”
When The Communicator called her December 19, Corona said she had just sent 151 emails to Division 301 members who are spread over 36 different departments, offices and buildings on the Hutchings campus and satellite clinics. Just trying to move freely within a building, is complicated by all of the locked doors that typify facilities devoted to mental health care.
Corona said she holds orientation sessions about every two weeks for new hires coming into the union, so they can start to learn about PEF and how they are a key part of the union.
Last summer, she turned in about 85 membership recommitment cards to PEF. One strategy that she finds helps members not forget is to have them sign the cards when they arrive for a division meeting.
“When you sign the card, you get a sticker. And when you get a sticker, you get a meal,” Corona said. It doesn’t matter if the member signed a recommitment card previously, because it poses no problem for PEF to have more than one signed card from the same member.
A new benefit for Division 301 members that Corona hopes to roll out very soon is a series of “Lunch and Learn” programs. She said she is working with PEF Vice President Randi DiAntonio on developing this effort.
Lunch-time meetings with members on the day shift at Hutchings are intense, because so many people arrive and must register, eat, get information, ask questions and return to their jobs within a very short time, Corona said.
“At our last meeting, 84 people came within an hour. It was standing room only. Fortunately, we had two members of PEF Retirees helping us and Region 4 Coordinator Bobbi Stafford and PEF field representative Dave Snyder worked at the registration desk. We also held an early morning meeting for the shift that was ending then and five members attended it. We had another six or seven members at our evening meeting. It’s actually easier for members to get attention for their specific issues at these smaller meetings.”
Like Lopez, Corona said she wasn’t always so committed to the union.
“Before I got involved, I didn’t know much about the union. For the last four years, I’ve been on a mission to let our members know this union is here to serve them, and they are the union,” Corona said.
She became a “believer” in PEF, Corona said, “when I saw how available PEF’s top leaders and staff were to me. That inspired me to kind of ‘pay that forward’ to the members of our division.
“I depend a lot on my fellow Division 301 officers and stewards,” Corona said. “Everything they do is important and is paramount as to why our division has been able to be so successful.”