PEF does it! Union holds first-ever virtual convention
By SHERRY HALBROOK
PEF’s 42nd Annual Convention, planned for Niagara Falls, instead came to delegates October 18-21 in their homes from a hotel ballroom in Troy, New York, where PEF President Wayne Spence and key staff members were virtually interacting with more than 400 delegates.
While it was utterly unique in the union’s history, the fact that it happened at all was a triumphant testimony to the commitment and can-do spirit of union members, leaders and staff. The convention was created in just six weeks after the Executive Board adopted rules allowing it to be done virtually. A production crew was hired to facilitate the technical aspects of the operation, working closely with PEF MIS staff to create a “microsite” that blended Zoom and broadcast technology. Delegates had the ability to follow parliamentary procedure and speak during plenary sessions, while also attending vital departmental meetings regarding apportionment and various workshops focusing on union benefits and navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was the pandemic that forced the new format, in which President Spence stood at a podium more than six feet apart from the parliamentarian and PEF general counsel. He wore a mask during all live proceedings, but pre-recorded his State of the Union address, which allowed him to speak alone and without a mask.
“We might say this year we are holding an ‘unconventional convention,’” Spence told the delegates.
The event followed an agenda adopted by the delegation at the outset:
• Credentials Committee meetings and reports
• Resolutions Committees’ meetings;
• Departmental meetings;
• President’s Reception with pre-recorded remarks from a host of honored guests;
• State of the Union Address;
• Secretary-Treasurer’s Report;
• Trustees Report;
• Adoption of state and federal legislative agendas for 2021;
• Workshops and panel discussions; and
• The motions, amendments, debate and voting that constitute the vital heartbeat of every convention.
The “star-studded” speakers list for the reception included both of New York’s U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both of the state’s legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, state AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento and the presidents of both of PEF’s parent unions, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry. Their common themes were praise and gratitude for the heroic service of PEF members and also the tremendous importance of voting in the upcoming election.
The apt theme of this convention was: PEF Does It, PEF Heroes, and they really did do it.
In his State of the Union address, Spence talked about how intense and unfamiliar the pandemic has made 2020. Every member has their own personal experience, but not all of them know how hard the union has been working to protect both their safety and their rights during this potentially deadly time. Spence told the delegates about how New York wanted to go into and inspect the homes of employees it directed to telecommute. PEF put a stop to that plan. He also spoke about how the state wanted to delay PEF members’ paychecks in April, and again the union moved instantly to kill that.
The president explained how the union focused on maintaining close communications with its members, learning about their new needs and challenges, and finding ways to address them, with special emphasis on protecting members caring for or working around infectious people. Here, PEF jumped in to provide them with vitally important masks, sanitizer and other equipment that the state was not adequately supplying. And then the union went still further and provided members working long shifts in COVID hospital wards with nearby hotel rooms where they could shower and sleep without the risk of contaminating their homes and families.
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“This is what the union is all about,” Spence said. “This is what PEF is all about!”
In her annual report, PEF Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie announced that she is sticking with her personal decision (that she first expressed when she ran for the office in 2018) not to seek re-election to that post in the PEF Triennial Elections coming up next year. She reported on the extensive renovations underway at PEF headquarters in Latham, N.Y., and on the many upgrades to the union’s information technology hardware, software and capabilities. Improvements to PEF’s financial management at all levels from divisions and regions on up to the union’s statewide budget and operations were highlighted as well.
Spence congratulated Wilkie and said he is amazed that the union is now able to financially support the many important capital improvements that have been needed for a long time.
While the delegates were committed to doing their job, they were a tough audience for the 18 resolutions that had been submitted by members before the convention and considered on Sunday by four Resolutions Committees. Eight of the 18 were brought to the floor during the plenary, but not one of them survived. Five were defeated outright and the other three were ruled out of order by the president at the urging of delegates.
“This is really tough,” Spence commented. “I personally liked some of these resolutions.”
At previous physical conventions, the regional coordinators who chaired resolution committee meetings on the first day of a convention, would chair the plenary sessions when those resolutions were considered. That allowed a PEF president to join the debate if he or she wanted to express their opinions, and they could vote on the resolutions. But this year, between the safety concerns about social distancing and the technical issues involved, Spence was not allowed that opportunity. He had to chair the entire plenary with no relief from anyone. And, as the chair, he could not take part in debate or voting unless there was a tie, which didn’t happen.
Waiting for delegates to enter the digital queue to make or second a motion or to debate took a bit longer, but that delay was offset, at least in part, by the automated tallying of votes cast via the delegates’ computers or phones. Almost every previous convention saw incidents of re-voting on the same thing multiple times because delegates questioned the opinions of the chair. That delay and exasperation were missing this year.
What stood out were the many reports spotlighting how the union and its members have risen with unrelenting courage and determination to meet the unparalleled challenges of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
President Spence, who has lost three of his own extended family to the virus, was profoundly saddened to share a memorial to the many PEF members and retired members who have died since the 2019 convention.
And yet, while weighted by that sadness and loss, the overwhelming spirit of the convention was “Can Do,” as both Spence and other speakers spoke of how strongly common interests, values and goals unite the membership and guide it forward through every steep and dangerous challenge.
Always remember, Spence said, “We have far more in common than we have in differences.”