by Reid Fitzsimons
I was an employee of New York State from 1986 to 2001 (Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities). New York is a closed shop and employees are automatically associated with one of several public employee unions depending upon their position. My position required that I pay dues to the Public Employees Federation (PEF), the union representing professional, scientific, and technical employees. PEF represented positions ranged from nurses and medical providers to various therapists, educators, and accountants, to name a few. Note that I was not required to join the union, per se, only pay dues, which the state automatically deducted from every pay check. I personally refused to join the union for many years, which meant I was not eligible to vote in elections/referendums.
After a number of years I realized I could receive, as a non-member, a rebate of a portion of my dues, perhaps 20% if I recall correctly. In theory this was the amount that was used for political activism, though I was strongly suspicious of the basis of their calculation. This refund was in no way automatic but rather I had to personally write a letter making the request during a narrow window that occurred only once a year. Eventually circumstances at work compelled me to run for local President (Council Leader), but in order to do so I had to join the Union. I was quite pleased that I won the election by a 2 to 1 margin over the incumbent, this being in 1999.
PEF is organized into three levels- the state headquarters, located near Albany, NY, the regional offices, and finally the locals (called a divisions). Being a local President proved to be an enlightening experience. I will try to relate several of my impressions and observations.
PEF functions with two strata of personnel. First are the elected leaders, ranging from the local officers up to the state President. In theory none of these are paid positions but in many cases the officer may be granted, “release time.” What this means is the officer will receive their regular civil service salary but will actually be performing their union function. This could be fulltime or a percentage of time. Where I worked the facility director (we were not friends, to say the least) did not grant me any release time, so my approximately 20 hours of union work a week were done before or after normal working hours and on weekends. Release time is coveted and the reality is that it is often given in return for not causing any trouble for the administration. Likewise, being a non-troublesome local president can lead to promotions and other favorable consideration. Note that there is mandatory, contractual release time for attending various meetings and representations, such as grievance hearings.
The other stratum of PEF personnel is the salaried staff, which runs the gamut from secretaries to lawyers. Curiously these people were members of the Steelworkers union, and there were occasional and entertaining disputes between them and their PEF union employer.
It was my impression that the state level people viewed us locals as an encumbrance, i.e. we were there to support them and not vice-versa. The vast majority of the dues sent to the state level were kept there and we were allowed a very restricted budget. Our respective missions seemed to be almost completely unrelated. While I tended to avoid state level interactions, those I experienced confirmed most of what I had perceived as an essentially anti-union person. There was plenty of politicking in the most negative sense- meaningless threats coupled with attempts to ingratiate PEF with the political powers of the day. PEF was and is one of the weaker of the NY State public employee unions (the Civil Service Employees Association, more blue collar type workers, is much larger and carries much more clout) and they appeared silly when they tried to sound tough when dealing with the NY state level management. During contract negotiations we heard plenty of the “we deserve more” and “they are trying to screw us” rhetoric (to me kind of comical as we were among the highest paid NY State employees and had benefits almost unimaginable). Once a contract was agreed upon however, and regardless of the actual outcome, the rhetoric changed to “We won, they caved to our demands!”
I cannot say this with complete certainty, but I believe fully one half of PEF’s annual budget went to the three days of hedonism for a tiny percentage of members known as the annual convention. I attended the 2000 convention and noticed the first few hours were fully attended but soon thereafter many “brothers and sisters,” as by custom we were supposed to refer to each other, seemed to disappear. Most were present, however, for the keynote address, and this proved a major disgrace to PEF. The speaker was then NY State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who was escorted into the hall with great pomp and flourish. Those that introduced him bestowed upon him accolade after accolade, and he gave a very competent and expected speech to great applause. Two years later he was the democrat candidate for Governor, and PEF had the gall to endorse his opponent, the ever-corrupt RINO incumbent, George Pataki.
Curiously, at the local level I found myself fighting the conservative battle. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the excesses, waste, fraud, etc that is the NY State government, but they are very real and very costly. We were often called to defend PEF represented employees when they were targets of retribution or simply victims of administrative idiocy and pettiness. Examples of the latter included a nurse who was initially refused a shift swap (a common practice, no cost involved) so that she could have the day after her wedding off, and a medical practitioner who was ordered to falsify a medical record simply because the form was poorly designed- to the administration mindless compliance and obedience was more important than integrity and common sense.
Much more costly were the official targeted investigations. I would estimate the State spent at least thousands of dollars pursuing the case of a benign older social worker type employee who was charged with “theft of State time” when she was “caught” at a convenience store buying a snack on the way back from a patient home visit. This case reached the level of arbitration (a lengthy and costly process) when the State blinked and offered a plea bargain of sorts (we functioned in a ludicrous pseudo-legal environment). The paid professional PEF guy suggested she take the “plea” but I advised her to go to arbitration; she choose my advice and the next day the State dropped all “charges-” they would have been humiliated in arbitration. This person was targeted because a mid-level supervisor, who happened to be the sister of a local county DA, simply didn’t like her. In a humorous twist, around this time I went to a convenience store on a day off and noticed a state vehicle parked in front. When I entered I found the head of “investigations” buying a pack of cigarettes. When he saw me he abruptly dropped the pack on the counter and left without saying a word.
My time as the President of a local public employees union taught me government will use its power solely because it can and cost is truly no consideration. This power can be used against employees who have crossed them in some perceived manner, and likewise is used to benefit those who are willing to go along regardless of competence or accomplishment. This is sadly the future of America as a whole, and not just in relation to employees but to citizens as well.
The local union, if the officers are willing, can provide an important check and balance against the excesses of management. Unfortunately, the higher one goes in the union hierarchy the less concerned they are with the worker they represent and the more enamored they become with experiencing their own sense of power- the opportunity to have their calls answered by a powerful politician, or at least one of their second level assistants in the case of PEF. The tiresome cries of fairness, justice, living wage, etc. are vacant posturing at best, especially in regards to public employee unions, and are really just euphemisms for “we deserve more,” regardless of the abundance of what we have.
It is a shame that unions overall devote their resources to what might be called celebrity- the high level political lobbying and mingling at the expense of workers at the local level. My experience suggests it is much more difficult to protect the rank & file from moronic and self-serving behavior of defective management than to simply suck the worker’s dues money up the ladder, engorge the highest echelons of union management, then dump it into the coffers of leftist activist groups. For the most part unions currently exist, and affluently so, because the laws and regulations are grossly slanted in their favor, especially in the 25-30 non right-to-work states. Labor would be better served if unions actually had to prove their worth locally rather than regard their members as faceless sources of revenue, a means to an end, with the end being power, wealth, and fulfillment of the leftist progressive fantasies of the union elite.
A brief anecdote in closing: In October of 2000 I was in Seattle at a convention center for a personal reason. There was some type of SEIU event going on (PEF is both AFL-CIO and SEIU affiliated) and I went up to the girl at the registration table and introduced myself as the President of a local, thinking I might engage her in a little shop talk. Before further opportunity presented itself she asked, “Don’t you just love Al Gore?” I replied that I was one of those atypical conservative union Presidents and supported Bush. Her look was one of total bewilderment and disconnect- she said nothing in reply, turned her chair away, and stared off into the distance.
Note: In writing this article I discovered a very useful website- www.unionfacts.com- as a source for information and statistics.