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PEF is all of us

But do you really know what that means?

By SHERRY HALBROOK

As a PEF member, you know you have a union, and you may know that it negotiates a contract for you that sets your pay and your health care benefits.  But do you understand how your union enforces that contract to protect your rights and benefits?  Do you know that you have both rights and responsibilities, beyond the dues that are deducted from your pay?

Some members have learned a lot about PEF.  For other members, their union is as much mystery as familiar territory.  It’s likely most members fall somewhere in between very knowledgeable and “not so much.”

The most important thing to understand is: You are your union.  PEF is as effective in meeting your workplace needs as you make it.  It is not one person, it is the combined effort and unified force of every member acting and speaking in unity.

Or as PEF Vice President Randi DiAntonio puts it: “The union is all of us!  The best chance to fight bad management decisions is by showing management at the worksite that we are united and working collectively.  Our power comes from being a collective force. The union is members, elected stewards, regional and statewide leaders and staff.

“Even when we disagree, there should be no separation or divide, no us-versus-them,” DiAntonio said. “Any types of divides among us, real or not, only serve to benefit management; which will use it as a weapon to take advantage of our frustrations and create an atmosphere where they are better able to separate and agitate us  to blame each other and the union, instead of taking responsibility and corrective actions.”

Your union is not like a service company that you hire to provide your internet service or collect and haul away your trash.  It is much more personal than that, because it is you and your co-workers standing up for your rights, demanding respect, fairness and reasonable, healthy, safe working conditions.

Your contract documents the rules, rights and benefits that you and your co-workers have negotiated, through your PEF contract committee, with the state.

Every contract is hard fought and difficult to achieve.  That is because the state’s Taylor Law makes it illegal for public employees to strike or withhold their services.  It takes great determination, patience, imagination and most of all unity and passion to obtain the best contract possible.

PEF has been working constantly on your behalf to help you get through the pandemic and now the reopening of state worksites.  Union leaders and staff have been guided by you.  They needed to know what was happening to you and your job and your family, so that they could take the necessary actions and work with the state to help you function effectively and safely.  It was and is your voice and insights that point the way for the entire union.  First you speak, and then when each voice is heard, a consensus must be found and the entire union responds.

With well over 50,000 members in thousands of different job titles, that’s a lot of information for the union to gather quickly, process and convert to forceful, effective action.  It requires a vibrant, responsive structure to make that happen.

Understanding that structure is often where things can get a bit blurry and confusing for members. They may wonder why they see the term PS&T used so often and what does it stand for?  Why are AFT and SEIU mentioned?  Or they may question why they need a PEF division, or what is their PEF region.  Why is their PEF region numbered differently than their state agency region?

So, here are some basics:

• The state workforce is divided into different bargaining units that group employees according to their common job and duty related interests.. You are in the PS&T (Professional, Scientific and Technical) unit.  PEF is the bargaining agent (union) for that bargaining unit.

• PEF was elected by the employees in the PS&T unit in 1978 to be their bargaining agent. This vote came after years of organizing by PEF’s two international union parents/affiliates – the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).  PEF did not exist before that vote.  And after the vote, AFT and SEIU helped the PS&T employees build PEF from the ground up.  More than 40 years later, PEF is still building and evolving to meet the needs of its members.

• The first step was to write and adopt a PEF constitution and bylaws and then elect officers and an Executive Board to represent the PS&T members throughout state service.

• Having officers and board members was a good start, but PEF needed offices and staff to serve a membership spread over the entire state. So the PEF constitution divided the membership into 12 regions – with Region 1 based in Buffalo, Region 8 in Albany, Region 12 on Long Island, and the other nine regions progressing from west to east accordingly.

• Those regions each comprise members, from a wide variety of state agencies, who share certain regional interests, needs and concerns.  You can easily see how the downstate regions – 10 Manhattan and the Bronx; 11 Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island; and 12 Long Island – have very urban issues in common relating to high housing costs, public transportation, parking, great population diversity and a generally higher cost of living.  In addition, these three regions have also borne the brunt of disasters such as the current pandemic, 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.  The working world and life for these members is significantly different in certain respects from those who work in the Capital District, the Adirondacks or the Southern Tier.  Therefore, your PEF region groups you with other members who work there too and who may share some of your key day-to-day challenges and advantages.

• If you are thinking that you have even more in common with members at your own worksite or state employer, you are right. PEF’s founders quickly came to the same conclusion and they addressed that issue in the PEF constitution by establishing a way to create PEF divisions to organize members based on their agency or their worksite.  Today PEF has hundreds of divisions, each with its own stewards and officers, and its own constitution.  Some divisions comprise members at a single worksite, some have members at multiple worksites, others comprise all of the members at an entire statewide agency, and a few comprise members at more than one agency or even members at several non-state employers.  That latter situation arises because PEF has expanded over the years to embrace other much smaller bargaining groups, such as some municipal employees.

• “Your PEF division is the part of our union that is focused most intently on you and your workplace issues,” DiAntonio said. It is positioned to have the best chance to resolve agency or worksite-specific  problems quickly and effectively.  It can do that when all of its members are fired up, ready to take on division work as officers, stewards, committee chairs or volunteer to help where they are needed.

“Your PEF division is potentially the most powerful force for you when it has a cadre of stewards and PEF Executive Board representatives to give a real and direct voice on the job,” DiAntonio said.  ”The PEF field representative and the regional coordinator are the local leaders’ primary resources.”

• Your division, with the support of PEF field and health and safety staff, and its statewide labor-management committee, can effectively address workplace concerns in real time with local managers. Without that, divisions are not as powerful or connected to the supports of the PEF organization.  It takes ‘all hands on deck’ and working together to make the union in your workplace a force to be reckoned with.”

“If you are part of a PEF division that has difficulty finding members who feel confident standing up to management and are willing to sacrifice some of their personal time and energy to hold office, to be trained as a steward or as a treasurer for the division, or even just attend a division meeting, how effective do you think we will be when we go to fight a management decision or practice?” DiAntonio asked.

PEF has statewide leaders and regional coordinators.  PEF has staff with professional expertise and commitment to serving you.  But they are not enough.  It takes member involvement to effectively resolve your personal workplace issues, your agency-wide issues and the over-arching issues of job security, a strong contract with fair raises, affordable health insurance and a secure retirement.

It takes you.  Not just two or three of your co-workers.  It takes you.  You don’t have to do it all, but the union is only as strong and effective as each of you makes it.  When everyone picks up their share of the responsibility, stays informed and brings their constructive ideas, information and insights to the discussion, nothing can stop you.

“Management is generally more responsive to the union when the members, elected leaders, and staff work together,” DiAntonio said.  The PEF statewide leaders and staff directors do all we can to support the efforts of our local leaders, but efforts from Albany are generally only effective if management believes that the local employees are upset about the same thing and behind the union’s efforts.”

As PEF President Wayne Spence often reminds you:  “Together we are union strong.  Together we win!”

For more information about the union, check out PEF orientation information here.  And if you would like to request help to reinvigorate your division and get a full complement of stewards and officers elected and trained, email PEF Director of Organizing Dan Carpenter. He and Assistant Director of Divisions Kristie Furman work with DiAntonio to help divisions stay at optimum levels of participation and effectiveness.

“We are ALL PEF.  Making your division stronger, makes us all stronger,” DiAntonio said.