PEF Does It despite extreme challenges
By SHERRY HALBROOK
In his annual State of the Union address to PEF convention delegates on October 19, PEF President Wayne Spence summarized an extraordinary year, filled with the COVID-19 pandemic’s urgent, dramatic and even life-and-death challenges for the union, its members and their families.
“Who would have thought when we adjourned our convention last year, that we would be in this place today?” Spence asked. “The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down, resulting in tragic loss of life – including many of our PEF brothers and sisters and the greatest economic decline since the Great Depression. Many of us, including me, have been impacted by the coronavirus personally and the pain of this crisis will be with us forever.”
While each delegate was painfully aware of what he or she had been witnessing and experiencing in both their personal and work lives, Spence drew back the curtain on the union-wide experience and the many battles PEF has been fighting on its members’ behalf on a daily basis since March 7, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency and ordered New Yorkers to remain at home unless they were responsible for performing “essential” services.
“Since that time, life as we knew it has changed forever,” Spence said. “Social distancing and mask wearing became the norm, school buildings were closed, we were isolated from our family and friends, and PEF members had to endure many unprecedented changes in the workplace.
“Our theme this year is PEF DOES IT – PEF HEROES. And I have to say when New York state called upon you to step up during this time of crisis, you were nothing less than heroic,” he continued. “I am so proud of every PEF member — whether working on the frontlines or telecommuting from home, each of you has played an important role in keeping the state running and aiding in the state’s recovery.”
What the delegates and members did not know, Spence said, was how hard the union pushed back against unfair moves the state wanted to take during the COVID crisis in managing both its mission-critical workers at state worksites and others it directed to work from their homes.
“One of the first orders of business was negotiating an emergency telecommuting plan,” Spence said. “This plan included us eliminating a provision that would have allowed management to inspect the home worksites of our members who were telecommuting because of COVID-19. We told them they were out of line and we prevailed.”
While PEF was defending the privacy of its members telecommuting from their homes, the union was horrified to learn that its members who were deemed “essential,” were being forced to work without adequate supplies of the vital personal protective equipment (PPE) they needed to avoid becoming infected on the job.
“We didn’t take no for an answer when PPE was hard to find,” Spence said. “Following every lead and using every contact to locate protective masks for PEF members and medical masks for health care professionals, PEF distributed over 20,000 surgical masks, 7,000 K-N95s, thousands of face shields and 42,000 cloth masks to members across the state.”
PEF took protecting members and their families a step further when the virus was at its peak, securing blocks of hotel rooms for PEF nurses around major medical centers, including SUNY Stony Brook, SUNY Downstate and SUNY Upstate.
“This is what a union is all about,” Spence said. “This is what PEF is about. And when we were literally running out of money to continue this initiative, we set up a PEF Relief Fund. Over $350,000 was raised, which paid for housing for 119 members for a total of 3,049 nights.”
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“Those who benefitted from this program have called PEF’s hotel initiative a lifesaver,” Spence said, as messages from grateful members who used these rooms flashed on the screen for delegates to read.
And as these dramas played out, Spence said the union had to fight another battle – to derail a state plan to delay PEF members’ paychecks.
“I reminded the governor and New York residents that these are the folks who are putting their lives on the line for New York and that since they weren’t a day late when called on, their paychecks shouldn’t be late either.”
Members at many state agencies were experiencing still more new issues, expectations and working conditions that required quick action from PEF.
The president reviewed a long list of actions that PEF took, many of them simultaneously, to update members, hear their concerns, and take action, sometimes even suing the state during this stressful and dangerous time.
• Hosted tele-town halls where members could get their COVID-19 questions answered;
• Submitted an essential duty pay plan to the governor’s office;
• Filed lawsuits over unfair overtime payments at DOL and other state agencies;
• Negotiated agreements for the carryover of annual, personal and compensatory leave accruals when time could not be taken because of the COVID-19 crisis;
• Obtained an extension of PEP, a program allowing employees to use annual or personal leave to help pay their portion of health insurance premiums through calendar year 2020;
• Negotiated a telemedicine program for Empire Plan enrollees;
• Provided guidance to members regarding the Families First Coronavirus Response Act;
• Worked with DMV to delay implementation of significant changes to work hours, to assure 30 days notice is given for any schedule change.
• Worked on legislation to ensure the state is prepared for future pandemic/health emergencies;
• Created a video honoring PEF members’ work during COVID-19;
• Worked with Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul on the Reopen NYS plan;
• Called on the governor to ensure state office buildings have the same safety measures as other buildings, such as air-filtration systems needed for re-opening malls and gyms;
• Placed an op-ed in the Times Union supporting the federal Heroes Act;
• Texted 28,000 PEF members to contact their legislators in support of the Heroes Act;
• Held multiple trainings on student debt;
• Delivered meals to essential workers in New York City;
• Held “check-in” calls with divisional leaders across the state;
• Developed and implemented virtual membership meetings;
• Created and maintained a webpage on PEF.org with COVID-19 information, copies of letters to agency commissioners, and a comprehensive, regularly updated FAQ document.
“And this work isn’t done yet,” Spence added. “I am sure we will be facing new challenges, some we cannot even predict, and PEF will be there with our members every step of the way.”
The president also talked about how the union’s efforts to negotiate a new contract have been sidelined since March by the state’s focus on the pandemic, and he showed recorded comments from PEF’s chief negotiator Mark Richard and its chair of the contract team, Darlene Williams.
Richard said the state’s pandemic response and loss of revenues have left it currently unable to bargain. He cited the examples of other state-employee unions that had already settled their contracts with New York and now find that the give backs they agreed to make on health care are in place, but the pay raises they were supposed to receive in exchange for their sacrifices have been withheld.
“The state doesn’t have any money, and they really don’t want to talk about it. The state has said, ‘Not a penny more,” and it would be wanting us to give stuff back if we returned to the table now,” Richard told the delegates.
So, he said, PEF is biding its time and using it to continue its research and analysis of the contract issues in play.
Meanwhile, Richard said, PEF is having conversations with the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations on other issues almost daily.
“Now is the time to be strategic, and our team is ready to go whenever the state is ready,” Richard said.
“One thing is for sure,” Spence commented. “We will not settle for a “status quo” contract. You deserve more. And if anything, the coronavirus pandemic has shone a bright light on your value to New York state.”
Moving on, Spence noted that three national crises – medical, economic and social justice — have converged in 2020 to create a perfect storm, and he urged the union to face them.
While the medical and economic crises are clearly inescapable for the union and its members, Spence reminded the delegates that Article 2 of PEF’s Constitution and bylaws, written 40 years ago, demands the union oppose discrimination and fight for social justice.
“These issues are complex and impact us all in one way or another,” Spence said.
“There are folks who say PEF, and unions in general, should play no role in finding solutions to these problems; that unions exist solely for the purpose of advancing their members’ interests with respect to wages, benefits and working conditions. But, in fact, the labor movement in the United States has historically been involved in wider struggles for human rights, social justice and democracy.
“Unions have been the only way working people ever gained the voice and the power to affect major social change. In the 1960’s, there is a reason why the civil rights movement aligned itself with unions,” Spence continued. “Unions were the centerpiece in the struggle for workplace equity and the struggle for justice. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died during the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis.
“Some say PEF should not be involved with today’s Black Lives Matter movement or a Day of Action calling for change, but doesn’t involvement in social change re-affirm the values of PEF and the values of unionism as a whole?” Spence asked the delegation.
Spence also shared comments made by the leaders of both of PEF’s parent unions, the AFT and SEIU, and by the president of the state AFL-CIO, all of whom spoke strongly in favor of unions standing up for social justice and racial equity.
“If unions don’t do this work, then who will do it?” Spence asked. “PEF will stand with other unions. We will stand true to our stated goals. We support civil disobedience, but we absolutely do not support violence under any circumstances.
“We are proud of the law enforcement officers we represent. They are the ones who work day in and day out to keep our communities safe and secure. As most of you know, I am a parole officer and I know first-hand the incredibly difficult job they have. What we are opposed to is racism on any level and the brutality and abuse of power that sparked the public outrage this summer.”
What every delegate and every member should always remember, Spence said, is that, “We have far more in common than we have in differences.”
As the nation draws closer and closer to its general election, political pressures are spotlighting differences and propelling divisions, rather than unity, Spence noted. And with PEF, too, approaching its next triennial elections in 2021, some internal political forces are attacking its unity.
No sooner did PEF secure an extension of the telecommuting policy, Spence said, than the state announced it would not extend PEP — the Performance Enhancement Program that lets members trade days off for reductions in their health insurance premiums. The state’s refusal has sparked a barrage of complaints, frustration and disappointment from members.
The president said he is determined to persuade the state to reconsider its PEP decision. He called it unfair to the state employees who have heroically faced down every danger and obstacle during the pandemic to maintain the services that New Yorkers need every day.
Spence, however, said he will not let the state use PEP as a lever to force the union to drop its lawsuits pertaining to overtime and other issues.
The president then turned to the union’s legislative efforts in Albany, and the importance of having strong relationships with state and national legislators.
“Our relationships with elected officials and legislators have resulted in extremely beneficial laws for our members and for all of the residents of New York state,” Spence said, citing the Workplace Violence Prevention Law that PEF pushed through in New York, making it the first state in the nation to enact such a statute.
“This year, we are working on getting four separate pieces of legislation passed dealing with the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath, including a bill that would ensure the state is ready, should another health crisis occur. This helps PEF members, but it also benefits the greater good. Again, if unions are not here to do this work, who will?”
Spence said PEF is determined to resume its strong efforts to engage members and build the union’s divisions, and he asked Vice President Randi DiAntonio and Field Organizing Director Dan Carpenter to update the delegates on this important work.
DiAntonio said they are indebted to the other PEF leaders and activists who have worked with them and brought valuable insights and strategies to their attention. She cited the example of PEF Region 9 Coordinator Diane Jaulus, who recommended that PEF hold very early morning membership meetings for members at correctional facilities.
Carpenter said he thought it would be a waste of time and that no one would show up for a 6 a.m. meeting, but he quickly learned he was wrong about that. Members did show up, and now PEF has held 26 of these meetings at prisons and other facilities where members must arrive for early shifts.
DiAntonio said the pandemic interrupted PEF’s face-to-face member engagement efforts while they were in high gear and forced PEF to invent new strategies. So, with many members now working from home and using technology to telecommute, the union holds more Zoom calls and tele-town halls to safely connect with its members.
PEF has also instituted semi-weekly meetings of its labor-management teams at many agencies, and the union is texting up to 30,000 members to mobilize them on campaigns and send thousands of letters to legislators on important issues. PEF is also using technology to quickly survey members.
“The most important thing we did was to listen to you,” DiAntonio said.
Unfortunately, PEF is not the only one that has been working overtime during this crisis.
“This is no time to sit back and be complacent. The union haters have been busy undercutting the foundations labor has built and they are ready to pounce. We must build our divisions, our strength and our voices” to protect you, your safety, your rights and your job, DiAntonio said.
Spence echoed that sentiment, saying, “Delegates, these are trying times, but we must use our energy and talents to meet whatever lies ahead with unity. Therein lies our strength. Thank you, again, for all you do, our PEF heroes.”