Labor leaders, elected officials address PEF delegates at President’s Reception
By KATE MOSTACCIO
Delegates to the 42nd Annual PEF Convention logged into a microsite Sunday night to attend the virtual President’s Reception and received overwhelming appreciation and thanks from elected officials and top labor leaders.
“This certainly is the most unique convention in our union history,” said President Wayne Spence. “One thing will never change: PEF is still one union fighting for your rights, your benefits, your health and safety. That is true today more than ever as the coronavirus forces us to convene from our homes across the state, looking at a screen or listening on the phone.”
Spence said PEF reached out to politicians and labor leaders who wanted to address PEF members.
“The heroes of PEF, they wanted to talk to you,” Spence said.
The speakers included the presidents of PEF’s international parent unions, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Randi Weingarten and Mary Kay Henry; New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento; New York State senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand; elected leaders in Albany, New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senator Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins; and State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
Messages of the evening included gratitude for the work of PEF members on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic; a strong call to get out the vote for the November election and elect leaders who will stand behind unions and the American worker; and a reminder that together, we are stronger.
“This is the most consequential election of our lifetime,” said Weingarten. “We don’t want to look back and say we lost because people didn’t vote. As a union, we have done a lot to fight to ensure that people are safe. To fight to ensure that people are protected. To fight to ensure that people have a better life. We need people in the White House, people in the Senate and people in the House of Representatives that will help us do that.”
She said AFT has invested in the importance of this election, launching the AFT Votes bus from September 30 to November 3, traveling all around the country to get out the vote. Volunteers are socially distancing, wearing mask and getting tested to ensure the safety of all.
“We’ll be talking and have been talking to our members, our friends and families, and others in our communities about the stakes in this election,” she said. “We’re urging people to use their voice and make a difference by voting. We need a president who will fight for a path toward a better life for everyone.”
Weingarten praised PEF leaders and their response in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and acknowledged their critical work on the frontlines, in the unemployment offices, and myriad other PEF essential jobs.
“When it comes to mostly anything, PEF members do it,” she said. “Thank you for the work that you’ve done in New York to help keep people safe.”
Mary Kay Henry
Henry said the two million members of SEIU stand in solidarity with PEF through these hard times.
“Most of us have never experienced a crisis like this in our entire lives,” she said. “Millions of underpaid and underprotected essential workers are on the front lines of a pandemic and our president has no plan to address it. We’re in an economic depression with tens of millions of people out of work and losing health care. We are witnessing a worldwide uprising to defend black lives and speak out against systemic racism.
“The best way to address our concerns is to make sure we turn out and vote for leaders who care about working people,” she said. “
Henry also called attention to PEF elected leaders for their vital roles in the community, as well as in the union movement.
“I want to recognize President Wayne Spence for his partnership and leadership on all of our national fights and his specific help to shape SEIU’s engagement with our members around the support for the movement for black lives,” she said.
Henry thanked PEF members for standing tall in the thick of things at the height of the pandemic, at hospitals, correctional facilities, group homes and state offices. She also acknowledged the hard work of the Department of Labor members on processing unprecedented numbers of unemployment claims.
“You’ve made tremendous sacrifices,” she said. “Across the country, SEIU members are facing the same challenges. Standing together, we will get through this.”
She also urged delegates to get out the vote.
“We need to build a future where all workers are valued and all workers are respected,” she said. “We do that the only way we know how, by organizing, speaking out and voting. We know our next fight is at the ballot box. We can’t afford to sit out this election.”
New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento, on behalf of the organization’s 2.5 million members, thanked President Spence for representing his members’ voices on issues before the state’s labor board and for hitting the ground running when the pandemic gained steam earlier this year.
“Wayne always has your best interests in mind and acts on your behalf,” Cilento said. “From the moment the pandemic hit, Wayne was on top of this crisis. I have no doubt the lives of PEF members were saved and illnesses were prevented due to his proactive nature and commitment.”
Cilento said the continuing sacrifices of essential workers on the frontlines, as well as the mental health toll, require vigilance and action on the part of unions.
“Moving forward we must keep workers safe, care for those whose lives and livelihoods have been impacted,” Cilento said. “We must rebuild our economy and save the services you provide.”
The first priority, he said, must be adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Agencies should be prepared for a second wave of the virus and have a 90-day supply of PPE in place, as well as adequate staffing plans and backup plans.
“At the height of the pandemic, PEF did what it always does,” he said. “Stepped up and provided PPE to its members when the agencies failed to do so. But, quite frankly, they shouldn’t have had to. PEF went so far as to provide hotel rooms to nurses and others who were terrified to enter their homes in fear of getting their loved ones sick.”
Cilento said the state should step up to aid workers impacted by COVID-19. He said in addition to wage replacement and death benefits, workers exposed on the job should be afforded the best health care available.
Investing in the vital services PEF members provide will be essential in the coming months and years.
“PEF members, all of you, from frontline workers to call center workers and everyone in between, are the heroes of this crisis,” Cilento said. “That’s why we cannot allow this budget to be balanced on the backs of the state workforce. Instead, we must raise revenues by taxing the wealthy to ensure the continuity of services and we need to press our federal leadership to come through with critical state aid to state and local governments.”
He said the labor movement is like a family.
“That sentiment, that bond between all of us, is more important now than ever before,” he said. “Let’s pledge to bridge the differences between us and let the labor movement serve as a model of unity and solidarity because that is who we are.
“Three things I ask: Use your power at the polls. Stay safe. Stay union strong.”
Elected leaders in Washington
Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the country is facing unprecedented times.
“The worst global pandemic since the Spanish flu. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And on top of it all, an untimely Supreme Court vacancy that potentially threatens to erode so much of what we value, including the right to organize and collectively bargain,” Sen. Schumer told the delegates.
Democrats have written a COVID relief bill, the HEROES Act, that Schumer said is critical for state and local governments and for the public workforce, earmarking $1 trillion for governments and hundreds of billions of dollars for hospitals and health care providers, as well as pandemic hazard pay for frontline workers and so much more.
“I want to thank your members who have been on the frontlines fighting this crisis, from doctors to nurses to social workers in group homes and prisons, to the folks working the phones at the labor department and processing coronavirus tests at state labs, all of you are our soldiers, our heroes,” Schumer said. “Every time you have been called to meet a new challenge, you’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty. You now face one more challenge, the election.”
Schumer urged delegates to get involved in the voting process, join phone banking efforts and contacting family members in other states.
“This country was built by the labor movement and now it’s time to save it,” Schumer said.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called attention to the theme of the Convention as she addressed delegates Sunday night.
“I want to thank all of you. Whether you are working in our state and local governments or in our health care system, PEF members have stepped up in New York state’s time of need. The theme of this convention, PEF Does It, could not be more accurate. The wide range of work PEF members do has always been essential to our state and to the people who call it home.”
She said the pandemic has made that work more important than ever before, especially when workers are faced with managing the pandemic on both a professional and personal level.
“You know how real the hazards are when you report to do essential work in hospitals, prisons, group homes and rehabs,” Sen. Gillibrand said. “And you do it regardless knowing how needed it is. That’s the definition of public service.”
Gilibrand said the country needs to recognize that work and the risks that come with it with more than just words. She called for COVID-19 hazard pay, saying soldiers asked to put themselves at risk in combat get combat pay and the same respect needs to be afforded to frontline workers.
She also said there needs to be a major overhaul of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which currently fails to live up to its promises, with less than 1 percent of applicants getting loan forgiveness.
“It takes time and financial resources to get the training and education these essential jobs require,” she said. “We must do better when it comes to helping you defray these costs. I’m sure many of you have built your careers and lives around the rightful expectation that your loans would be forgiven through the program only to be denied the relief you’ve earned. We must make good on our promise to our public servants.”
Gillibrand said she is also working on COVID relief legislation and is fighting for resources for local and state government, critical to protecting jobs in the public workforce. She also called on delegates to get involved and vote in this election.
“This is not the time to stay on the sidelines of our democracy,” she said.
Elected officials in Albany
PEF members made a difference during the pandemic, New York State Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins said, and the Senate majority stands proudly with our members.
“PEF members are the lifeblood of the Empire State, delivering critical services across New York,” she said. “PEF members served on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic and made all the difference in flattening the curve. When it comes to keeping our state running, despite whatever crisis we may face, PEF Does It.”
She said the Senate has been working to protect and afford workers the benefits they deserve, passing legislation to guarantee accidental death pension benefits to families of public employees who died of COVID-19.
Other legislation has been held up for political reasons, making this election critical.
“We must do everything in our power to get Joe Biden and Kamala Harris elected,” she said. “No one can afford to sit on the sidelines at this time. In less than two months, your vote and involvement in the November election will determine the future of our nation.”
New York State Assembly Speaker Heastie, on behalf of his colleagues in the Assembly, expressed gratitude for all the work PEF members do for New York.
“You are the engine that keeps us moving forward in this critical, difficult time,” Heastie said. “Your work is more important than ever. We in the Assembly Majority have and will continue to fight for the things that matter most to you.”
He said the Assembly passed legislation requiring public employers in New York to prepare a plan for continued operations in the event of a public health emergency involving a communicable disease and strengthened whistleblower protections for health care workers.
“We in the Legislature have had to find new ways to pass laws to help ease the burden on so many of you that have put yourself at risk to serve your community,” he said.
New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli praised his employees in the State Comptroller’s Office, including PEF members, who have continued to deliver high performance and productivity without interruption, working seamlessly through a shift to telecommuting and other COVID-19 pandemic challenges.
“The ongoing crisis continues to pose many challenges for our employees,” he said, including the need to juggle virtual school and work-from-home arrangements and an inability to interact with elderly relatives for fear of spreading the virus. “Because of our state’s strong response, led by PEF members, New York has come a long way from our darkest days in April. But the threat is by no means over.”
The road to fiscal recovery will be a long one, DiNapoli said. Fourty-five percent of New York small businesses have been negatively impacted by the virus and 18 percent have no cash on hand. Local sales taxes are down 27 percent. The state general fund budget gap is $14.5 billion for this year and the Department of Budget projects another large gap next year, and gaps in subsequent years, DiNapoli said.
“It is critical we press Washington for relief,” he said. “I will continue to make my voice heard.”
One less worry for PEF members is the pension fund.
“Your pension plan is strong,” DiNapoli said. “We went into this as one of the best funded state pension funds in the nation. Despite market volatility, that is still the case.” DiNapoli said the volatility will continue but “your pensions remain safe and secure.”
He urged members to exercise their right to vote.
“If we want to come out of these challenging economic times stronger, we need to support PEF,” DiNapoli said. “As members, you have power in numbers. Keep voting for candidates that stand with public employees and union members.”