Building your union every day
By SHERRY HALBROOK
Unions are not built in “a” day. They are built every day.
The approximately 54,000 people represented by PEF, mostly state professional, scientific and technical (PS&T) employees of New York state, constitute a fluid group. Employees enter and leave the bargaining unit every day, and that can create gaps in the union structure of leadership and services especially at the local or PEF division level.
“Our members’ needs are constantly shifting and changing and we need to be constantly building and rebuilding to meet those needs,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “We are always in transition.”
That’s why the union’s statewide leaders have come to recognize the need to be constantly helping members maintain their local union structure and send them experts to give that support where and when it’s needed.
Since April, PEF staffers Kristie Furman and Dan Carpenter have traveled to more than 50 worksites and PEF events to meet with members and help them learn how to fill gaps and build their capacity to meet their needs and provide effective union services.
“Members must be active and informed,” said PEF Vice President Randi DiAntonio, who heads PEF’s membership engagement efforts. “That’s what it takes for this union to be effective in meeting their needs. Members need to know what it means to be in the union, they need to know what their benefits are and who are their local leaders. They need to know who to contact for information and help, and they need to know how to reach those people. We want to be able to share valuable information with every member and we need to hear the valuable information they want to share with us.”
“PEF isn’t just a few elected people and some staff in Albany,” Spence said. “The union is every member, and we know that we are only as strong and effective in meeting our needs as our common purpose and efforts allow. You need to know who to turn to when you have an issue. You need to receive the valuable information we have to give you about your contract, your benefits, your legal rights, your educational opportunities, and lots of ways to make your working life safer and more productive.”
PEF depends on effective organization and communication throughout every level, including each member whose work requires them to travel, and every member at every facility, office, laboratory, hospital and other worksite.
“Our strength depends on the whole union being able to respond and put its strength behind each person who is injured, denied their rights, or encountering other serious workplace challenges and issues,” Spence said. “And that means work and maintenance on our internal structure has to go on continuously. So, that’s what we are doing.”
Furman, who is PEF assistant director of divisions, and Carpenter, PEF’s assistant director of field service organizing, are the core staff members addressing this need, and that has meant responding by phone and email to division officers, stewards and members asking for information and help. And often it means one or both of them go to you and they bring the knowledge and tools you need to be the functioning and productive part of PEF that you need to be. While they are the point persons currently working on this, they have support from a wide range of PEF’s elected leaders and staff.
When members retire, transfer or are promoted out of the PS&T bargaining unit, it can leave big gaps in the division’s leadership structure.
“You may be missing stewards, a division leader, assistant division leader, treasurer or secretary or all of them,” Furman said. “You may not know how to rebuild your division leadership. You need to know how to hold an election and get up-to-date information about your division membership. We are here to help you. And once you get people elected, they may need training to understand how to fulfill their new responsibilities. We don’t recruit or support candidates, but we answer questions and make sure division members know how to conduct these elections.
“It’s more than just getting the elected offices filled. We make sure they get steward training, and division officer training,” Furman said. “We need to help them get all of their committees in place and working. That includes labor-management, health and safety, audit, membership and especially new-member orientation.”
Is this effort working? Yes.
DiAntonio reported at the PEF 2019 convention in September that the PEF elections had filled approximately 375 offices – from steward to Executive Board – in the 12 months since the 2018 convention. The percentage of offices that are filled has grown and it is more than three-quarters of all the potential offices, statewide. It’s good news, but the work must continue, DiAntonio said.
“The people who step up and take on these responsibilities may not know how to call a meeting, how to communicate with their members, how to create fliers to announce and invite people to meetings and activities,” Carpenter said. “I bring them a kit for setting up their PEF bulleting board and help teach them how to use it. Some people want to know more about how to create and distribute news to members on paper or electronically. In fact, I’m teaching a workshop at the joint leadership conference for PEF Regions 9 and 10 (held November 1-3), on how to use Twitter to communicate effectively with members. I help them learn about those things, while Kristie is teaching them about how to conduct elections and meet their financial management and reporting obligations.”
Furman emphasized that, while they haven’t done a great many repeat visits yet, they are not turning their backs on the divisions and people they are helping. “We’ve promised to come back when they need us and to give them the tools they need to be successful in addressing their members’ needs,” she said. “We want them to grow strong and be able to function effectively and efficiently on their own and learn to draw on all of the PEF resources around them, such as their PEF field staff and their regional coordinators.”
You don’t have to have gaps in your division structure to encounter Carpenter and Furman. They are constantly meeting and engaging members at a wide range of events, such as Labor Day parades, the State Fair and the Family Fun days offered by the Membership Benefits Program, as well as conferences membership meetings, trainings and other programs.
Take a look at the map and the list of visits and local PEF activities where Furman and Carpenter have been present in the last seven months, and you will see the many ways they are constantly reaching out to meet you and to help you.
“Communication is crucial. Regional coordinators tell me they want to know more about division activities so they can support them. I and the other statewide officers also want to hear from you and be responsive and supportive,” Spence said. “The union functions best when we are all working hard to communicate and keep each other in the loop. You want to know what’s going on, and so do we. We’ve learned that sharing is key to being effective. If you want me or other elected leaders to attend a meeting or other event at your division, email or call us and let us know.”
Right now, PEF is focused on building unity among members to support the unions PS&T contract team. And members are hungry for information about how those negotiations are going.
“We are doing our best to inform members and to answer their questions about negotiations, but those talks are fluid and nothing is really firm until a tentative agreement is reached on the entire document that currently includes 50 articles covering many different issues that directly affect our members’ terms and conditions of employment,” Carpenter said.
“We are building strength to go long past when this contract is settled,” Furman added.
“Without enforcement, a contract is just an expectation,” Spence said. “We need well trained stewards and division officers who understand their members rights and know how to defend them and advocate for them. They are on the front lines, and we have great staff to back them up.”
“This work that Kristie and Dan are doing is vital to the future of our union,” DiAntonio said. “When we are all informed and working actively together to achieve our goals, we can win. We are building our collective power to meet the needs of each one of us. Together we can influence public policy, workplace issues and respond effectively in emergencies.”
“We feel this effort is critical,” Spence said. “No one can really comprehend the tremendous professional knowledge, skills, creativity, talents and technical expertise that we hold in this membership. It is vast and so impressive. When we focus all of that intelligence and resource to support every member every day, the potential is overwhelming. Structure, communications and unity of purpose is what it takes. And together we win!”
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