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PEF Board sticks to in-person 2021 convention, if health conditions permit

By SHERRY HALBROOK

President Spence chairs the virtual PEF Executive Board Meeting on March 24 from Troy, N.Y.

PEF will hold its 2021 convention as an in-person event October 24-27 in Niagara Falls, unless the pandemic forces it to be held virtually. That was the decision of the PEF Executive Board at its virtual quarterly meeting March 24-25.

Board members agonized over what they should do, because the idea of holding the convention virtually for a second year was unpopular, yet the obstacles to safely holding it in-person during the continuing pandemic pose great challenges for how to manage social distancing, as well as travel, meals and COVID-19 testing. Overcoming such obstacles will likely result in greatly increased costs.

Trying to do a hybrid event combining virtual and in-person was ruled out because it would likely double the cost. Some board members wanted to skip the convention entirely this year, but were reminded that the PEF constitution and bylaws require it to be held annually, and that requirement could not be amended in time to avoid holding the 2021 event. Previous attempts to amend this requirement have failed.

PEF will also hold the 2022 convention in Niagara Falls. If national or state pandemic restrictions force PEF to switch this year’s convention to a virtual one, PEF will likely hold the 2023 event in Niagara Falls to fulfill its existing commitment to hold the next two in-person conventions there.

Sen. Schumer speaks to board

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to the Executive Board via Zoom on March 24.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who represents New York, addressed the board and assured them that the rights and needs of working people are always foremost in his considerations.

Schumer reviewed the $23 billion dollars that he made sure the state and municipalities will receive in federal COVID relief in addition to $29 billion for schools and other funding for individuals, small businesses and organizations.

“Making sure people have a path forward was our top priority and one of the reasons I did it was PEF,” he said. “I love PEF. Call me for whatever you need.”

Schumer recalled that when he first ran for the Senate, PEF was the very first major organization to endorse him. PEF held a debate between Schumer and the other two candidates (Geraldine Ferraro and Marc Greene) seeking the Democratic nomination and the Executive Board then voted to endorse Schumer – something that drew the attention of the national press and gave Schumer a big boost early in that race.

PEF President Wayne Spence thanked Schumer for his help, saying, “I called you many times last year” as PEF worked to protect its members from the dangers of the pandemic.

2021-22 PEF Budget
PEF Secretary-Treasurer Kay Wilkie presented her 2021-22 PEF Budget proposal to the board and it was approved without amendment by unanimous consent.  The budget, she said, was endorsed by the Budget Advisory & Financial Compliance Committee, following extensive consultations with PEF Finance Director Ray Brown, other PEF Directors, executive staff and elected leaders. It was informed by rigorous analysis of recent trends, and by PEF’s strategic goals of membership engagement, recruitment and retention; securing and enforcing a contract members deserve; building political power to advance PEF’s agenda; promoting public services and opposing privatization and contracting out, and advocating for just, fair, and equitable career opportunities and healthy and safe workplaces.

The Secretary-Treasurer shared key budget assumptions: a membership level of 50,000; six months of largely virtual operations and six months with primarily in-person operations; revenues with NO dues increase, no settled contract with NYS; and expenses reflecting increased costs from the successfully settled USW agreement with PEF’s staff union and MC synopsis. Triennial Election costs are included, as well as lower repair costs, more secure and efficient operations from the nearly complete capital improvements to PEF’s HQ and IT systems and equipment; and given agreement on a COPE MOU with SEIU. There are NO penalties and strategic staffing levels are maintained at the same level of per caps, reimbursements and allowances supporting divisional and regional action.

The union saved a lot of money last year by operating virtually, she said, and the savings have been at all levels – statewide, regional and division. PEF policy requires that state-level savings be invested in the union’s fight-back and contingency campaigns, for example, to secure a great contract, and to oppose closures and privatizations.

Wilkie also mentioned that PEF has launched a coalition called “NYS Fund our Future- Build a Thriving New York” with In the Public Interest and other union and community leaders, to proactively make the case for expanding government and infrastructure in the public interest.

PEF’s internal auditor reported that he has audited 30 PEF divisions since he was hired about six months ago, and he usually works on auditing six divisions at a time.  His ambitious target is to audit all of the approximately 220 divisions in a three year cycle.

No dues increase!
In response to board members’ questions and false accusations, Wilkie and Spence reiterated that they have NO intention of raising dues, and have repeatedly pledged not to do so, as there is no need given their careful, scrupulous and ethical financial management.  They added that PEF has not raised dues since 2001, and has the lowest dues of any union in the state, and likely the entire nation.

“We’re in a stronger position now now than we have ever been,” Wilkie said. “We are vastly under budget in our current expenses. Our cash and investment positions are pretty impressive. The increased cost of resuming contract negotiations, mailing a tentative agreement when one is reached, and holding a ratification vote on it, will be offset by the increased revenues that would result from getting pay raises for members.”

Contract update
PEF Contract Chair Darlene Williams said negotiations are set to resume April 27 on a virtual basis. Spence briefly stepped away from the board meeting for a scheduled phone call to speak with the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations about how those virtual negotiations will work.

Williams said she expects the state’s first priority will be to implement raises agreed to in contracts it previously reached with other unions, and then it will be ready to finish its negotiations with PEF.

Wilkie said PEF knows its members are very frustrated with the dental care they receive through the NYS Health Insurance Program (NYSHIP) under the last contract. Some areas don’t have enough participating dentists, and members have higher out-of-pocket costs when they use a non-participating dentist. So, PEF solicited proposals to find out if it could provide better dental coverage to members and received enthusiastic responses from six potential vendors. Contact Administration is currently winnowing them down to the best two.

Virtual tour of PEF HQ

Headquarters’ renovations
Wilkie said that PEF is more than 80 percent complete in its renovations to headquarters in Latham, N.Y., and has been paying for those expenses as they are incurred. The union chose not to borrow money to finance the work. The board was shown a virtual tour of the renovated space. The building was fully modernized to improve heating and cooling problems, with new electrical, plumbing and HVAC  systems installed. In addition, the conference room is now large enough to accommodate EBoard meetings, meaning the union will save money by not renting space.

Fighting state budget cuts
Wilkie and regional coordinators praised the work of the PEF Organizing Department in helping to get members and retirees to send in 19,000 letters to their state legislators opposing proposed state budget cuts and agency mergers. The organizers and Divisions and Finance teams were also praised for helping divisions reach optimal effectiveness.

Grievance tracking
Protecting member confidentiality has been the major challenge and a top priority in creating a new grievance tracking system. The system is now being made available to PEF field services staff, with the data having been entered for all grievances filed in 2020. The system tracks the status of each grievance and alerts staff as filing deadlines approach.

PEF Triennial Elections
The deadline has passed for members to apply to run for office in the Triennial Election that includes all statewide offices, trustees, regional coordinators, and Executive Board seats.

Board members watched a video explaining how members will be able to sign nominating petitions online this year, or on paper. If someone signs both ways, only their first signature will count. Letters were sent to all members with their new randomly assigned usernames and passwords. This new digital option is being provided through a vendor, Educational Vistas, in Schenectady, N.Y. The petitions will become available starting March 29 at 9 a.m.

If a member finds no petition for the board seat that represents them, it means no one is running for that seat and nominees will be sought to fill it when quarterly special elections resume in October to fill mid-term vacancies. Members will be able to use the online site to identify their PEF region number (based on the county where they work) and the board seat number that represents them.

Candidates will be given updates periodically on how many valid signatures their petitions have received both online and by physical petition submissions, but they will not know which signatures were ruled invalid.

Candidates are encouraged to submit their bio and photo for the Candidate Guide as soon as possible. The deadline is April 28.

A debate for candidates for statewide offices and trustees will be held and streamed live May 19.

The Executive Board will meet again on June 29 and 30.