Region 8 conference offers broad insights into national, PEF efforts
Story and photos by SHERRY HALBROOK
It was Friday the 13th, and April didn’t feel very spring like in Saratoga Springs, but PEF Region 8 leaders and activists were not deterred. One hundred ten of them spent their weekend at the Hilton attending the region’s three-day leadership conference. It provided close-up views of both how unions are fighting off attacks throughout the country, and how PEF is working for members.
“We had a great turnout and the members told me they enjoyed the program and learned a lot,” said Region 8 Coordinator Michael Blue.
Friday, they were addressed by state Assemblywoman Patricia Fahey, who represents Albany in the Legislature. Fahey talked about bills supporting union rights that she and members in both houses of the Legislature have already passed this year.
Many felt the Saturday morning panel discussion was the highlight of the weekend, when they heard from labor leaders in other states about attacks on unions and workers’ rights that they are facing, and challenges that might lie ahead for PEF if the U.S. Supreme Court reverses its previous ruling in a different case and decides plaintiff Mark Janus (Janus v. AFSCME) and other workers may share the benefits of union representation without sharing the costs.
“They loved the panel discussion, and the film ‘We Are Wisconsin’ that we showed Saturday night,” Blue said.
“The Life after Janus session was fantastic, very informative and interesting,” said PEF Division 262 Council Leader Brenda Grober. “Then providing us with a follow-up session to train us on how to communicate with our members was perfect and extremely practical.”
PEF’s international union affiliate the American Federation of Teachers provided two of the panelists by videoconference: Michigan AFT President Dave Hecker, who also is a national AFT vice president; and Kansas AFT President Lisa Ost. John English, the New York state area field services director for AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) participated in person. And Richard O’Brien of AFT moderated the panel.
Because many of the Region 8 council leaders, stewards and Executive Board members had heard about the Janus case before and already knew about the need to engage members, Blue said he wanted to present panel members who have firsthand experience fighting to save their unions in extremely hostile situations.
“They survive and persist, but it’s hard work. They must constantly devote so much of their time to organizing,” Blue said. “In my case, I’ll never return to the mindset of taking our union for granted. It’s taken (these attacks) to really make me realize all the great things PEF does, what we have and what we could lose. Hearing from these leaders of other unions that are already dealing with serious attacks has been very good for me and for a lot of our Region 8 stewards.”
Saturday afternoon was devoted to two workshops conducted by PEF training specialists Tamara Carney and Kim Loccisano. The workshops focused first on how to have effective organizing conversations with PEF members and then on how to organize and engage members around specific issues.
“Organizing has a point to it,” Carney told them. “It is most effective when it is one-on-one and you can build a relationship with the member. It is personal and you can build mutual trust.” While you might feel more confident going with other stewards or activists to speak to individual members, Carney cautioned that could feel intimidating to the member.
“It could feel like you’re ganging up on them,” Carney said.
She also stressed the need to actually speak to members and not rely on texting and emailing them, even though that is how we often communicate. Looking at someone, sharing experiences and listening to them is key to building a relationship.
Don’t fall into the trap of making excuses for why it is awkward or inconvenient, she said. “If we keep looking at the barriers, we won’t have a union anymore.”
Carney said it is important for leaders, stewards and other activists who are talking to members to be familiar with the many benefits PEF members receive because they belong to the union. These include the many rights, protections and benefits spelled out in the contract such as job security, pay raises, health insurance, paid time off, the ability to donate and receive leave, safe and healthy worksites, as well as education and professional development benefits. They also include money-saving discounts and opportunities PEF members and retirees may access through the Membership Benefits Program and PEF Travel. And while it may not always come to mind, perhaps the most important benefit the union offers is the “voice,” professional identity and power PEF gives them in their workplace, at the state Capitol, in Washington and in the public eye.
Conversations with members should not only involve telling them about PEF and the benefits of membership, Carney said. “Seventy percent of the time should be spent listening to the member and learning about the issues and interests that are important to her or to him, and about their personal values.”
And when you have an organizing conversation with a member or feepayer, Carney said it is important to end by inviting them to become more involved in the union by asking them to do something specific, something that matches their interests and the time and talents they have to contribute.
The conferees broke into groups and practiced having these conversations, which are structured around the acronym AHUY that stands for:
• Agitate – Push past your comfort zone;
• Hope – Give them positive ways the union can help address their issues;
• Urgency – This is happening now, and ask them to act on a specific date, time and place; and
• You – Tell them, “You can be part of the solution.”
This workshop was followed by one led by Loccisano that focused on picking issues that matter to members and organizing them to address it.
Loccisano said every PEF member and leader has personal strengths that suit them for organizing their fellow members. While extroverted, gregarious people may feel confident and comfortable reaching out to others, introverts tend to be better listeners.
The conference participants learned how to distinguish between a member’s personal problems at work and situations that affect many members who can work together through the union to change it.
“Not all issues are good for organizing,” Loccisano said. “When you talk to members, listen, validate, educate, ask them to do something specific and then follow-up. If you don’t involve them, we’ve lost them. Don’t tell them you will get someone at PEF to fix their problem. We must not become a ‘servicing union.’ We must change that mentality. We must involve the member in solving their problems. Doing it together makes us all stronger.”
Once a division or steward has picked an issue that can be resolved and that many members really care about fixing, then they must identify who has the authority to make the change, because that person or group will be their target. Together the members must develop their plan, strategy and what actions to take.
The conferees broke into small groups to practice doing these steps and then reported back to the whole gathering.
PEF President Wayne Spence addressed the conference Saturday night, saying, “We need to build on our wins, such as our major state budget wins. Everything we didn’t want in the budget was removed, and everything we did want is in there.”
Spence talked about the need to save Ella McQueen Juvenile Reception Center in New York City, from its proposed closing. Since the governor is talking about removing offenders who are ages 16 and 17 from adult correctional facilities, Spence said, “We’ve suggested they be moved from Rikers Island (NYC correctional campus between Queens and the Bronx) to Ella McQueen in Brooklyn. We now have a year for the state to come up with a way to finance that.”
Spence also talked about PEF’s efforts to improve pay and staffing for all PEF nurses.
“We think the time is right for nurses to finally move up in pay grade across the state and not just rely on geographic pay,” he said.
Spence also talked about the great success PEF achieved by working with a community coalition and legislators to save Western NY Children’s Psychiatric Center from closing. “It was a five-year fight that ended in court. Both houses of the state Legislature passed it (a bill to keep the facility open), which challenged the governor’s right to close it. With a coalition, we prevailed. Hats off to those folks! The PEF Executive Board, PEF Secretary-Treasurer Kevin Hintz and I personally stood by them throughout the battle.”
Spence touched on issues related to the state Justice Center for Persons with Special Needs and said the Membership Benefits Program for PEF members has been providing funds to hire private attorneys for members who are charged by the Justice Center. This is something Spence initiated early in his term.
Spence also addressed his vision for the union in this time of unprecedented threats to all unions and especially those representing public employees. Rather than simply focusing on self preservation, PEF is working hard to grow its membership, achieve greater career mobility and promotion opportunities for its members, and fight hostile work environments.
“As I travel the state, I’m hearing from members that bullying and retaliation exist everywhere. Let’s continue to educate the governor about this,” Spence said. He added that he has brought the issue to the joint labor-management committee in which PEF deals directly with the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations.
“We agreed to activate the joint Quality of Working Life Committee (authorized in the PS&T contract) to try to quantify this issue,” Spence said.
Privatization is another major issue confronting PEF members, he said. “I’m meeting with DC 37 (of AFSCME) Executive Director Henry Garrido who got New York City to bring its information technology operations back in-house.”
Spence said Rikers Island holds the third largest group of mentally ill persons in the country, noting that correctional facilities are not the appropriate place to treat mental illness. And privatizing corrections, which the federal government and some states do, is making a bad situation worse.
“Privatizing jails is ruining people’s lives for profit,” Spence said. And he told the conferees that he has spoken to groups at the United Nations about this issue.
Spence said he feels the contract benefits for dental and vision care are not adequate to meet members’ needs, and he is taking a look at the way the Civil Service Employees Association handles this issue for its members. CSEA receives funding through its state contracts for the programs, which the union administers.
Spence also said PEF is working with state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon to review the potential advantages of expanding telecommuting opportunities for state employees.
“Studies show the employees actually work more hours when they work from home,” Spence said. “We believe it is a win-win (for workers and their employers).
The conference wrapped up Sunday morning with a training session conducted by PEF Legislative Director Greg Amorosi on how to help members recognize the importance and value of political and legislative action.
“It’s important for members to realize how our efforts to support candidates and certain bills in the Legislature result in important benefits for them and for all New Yorkers,” Blue said. “We endorse and support candidates who value the public services PEF members provide and who support funding for those services, and who also help us achieve greater fairness on workplace issues. We are not supporting parties or candidates for other kinds of reasons. PEF has never made a single endorsement based on a candidate’s support for issues that are not important to us as union members and public employees.”