State of the Union

Though private-labor union disputes often grab the headlines, unrest among the public-employee unions is where the action is in Westchester.

Think union in Westchester, and you might remember the Verizon strike last spring, when customers needing phone or Internet repair were out of luck for six and a half weeks. Or maybe you saw the giant inflatable rat (“Scabbie”) in Yonkers over the summer. Teamsters used the ugly rodent to protest the use of non-union workers for construction of a new apartment complex. Meanwhile, if you frequent Mrs. Green’s in Mount Kisco, there’s a good chance you witnessed picketing outside the store. Employees claimed they were fired after trying to unionize. (The workers were eventually rehired under a settlement.)

It all begs the question: What is the state of the union in Westchester these days?

A recent study by the City University of New York reveals that while unions are in decline nationally, organized labor in New York remains strong. Nationwide, fewer than one in nine workers are union members. But New York State’s rate is more than double that. Those numbers are in part driven by New York City, where approximately one-quarter of the workforce is unionized. 

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“Westchester is quite similar to New York City,” says Priscilla Murolo, a labor historian and professor at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. “Public employees are unionized, and building and skilled trades are unionized.” But Murolo also notes that like the rest of the Northeast, unions in Westchester have suffered from the decline in manufacturing. She cites shuttered factories like General Motors in North Tarrytown and Otis Elevator in Yonkers, which once provided thousands of unionized jobs. “Public-employee unions are under assault in many parts of the country,” Murolo adds. Wages in Westchester are higher, but so is the cost of living, she notes.

“State of the Unions 2016,” the City University study, also revealed that government employees account for most of the “density” of union membership in New York. Here in Westchester, while pickets and strikes of private companies get headlines and occasionally affect residents, it’s actually local unions representing county workers that are the biggest source of labor unrest and impact. And those workforce negotiations affect not only union members but also every taxpayer.

The bulk of the county-government workforce — well over 3,000 employees — has been without a contract for six years, and the impasse doesn’t look as if it’s anywhere near resolution. Negotiations with the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) are at a stalemate. CSEA membership includes both blue- and white-collar workers, including workers who repair roads and bridges, maintain sewage treatment plants, social workers, janitors, and secretaries, as well as engineers, accountants, and lab technicians — basically any county employee not represented by the other unions. (See Westchester Labor Primer, below, for details.)

In November, the union voted down the county’s latest contract offer by a margin of 92 percent. Kwabena Manu, president of the local CSEA Unit 9200, released a statement saying that members “have not just spoken; they have screamed their rejection to the county’s settlement offer.” Ned McCormack, a spokesman for County Executive Rob Astorino, counters that the union wasn’t “dealing with reality.” 

“The reality is that everyone pays for healthcare, and by continuing to reject this, what the CSEA is saying is that they want the other seven unions and their neighbors to pay for it,”
McCormack tells us.

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The proposed contract would have required union members to pay between 6 and 10 percent of their healthcare premiums, depending on their salaries, and would have provided 8.5 percent wage increases spread over eight years. It was defeated by a vote of 2,028 to 172.

Jessica Ladlee, a spokeswoman for the CSEA, says the union is reviewing its options, with a goal toward reaching an agreement. “When you have strong unions, you have a strong middle-class,” she stated in an interview a few days after the last vote. “There’s a widening divide between the 1 percent and people who are truly struggling, so it’s important we keep up the fight.”

Westchester Community College is also feeling the sting of a workforce controversy — on multiple fronts. The college has its own CSEA, Unit 9202, as well as a faculty union, the WCC Federation of Teachers. They, too, have been without contracts since 2011. Why a separate CSEA for the college, which is a county institution? According to Carol Ann
Zavarella-Vasta, the Unit 9202 president and secretary for the associate dean of student life, former college president Joe Hankin promised workers in 2008 that they would get a better deal from the county by forming their own bargaining unit. That didn’t happen — CSEA workers at the college now make 4 percent less than their colleagues in the rest of the county workforce. WCC’s CSEA represents roughly 270 people in non-faculty positions, including employees in admissions, registration, financial aid, information technology, and labs. 

Zavarella-Vasta says that the membership was willing to contribute to healthcare but that change needs to be introduced gradually. The union actually came to an agreement with the college’s board of trustees in 2015. That contract would have given union members pay increases totaling 7 percent for the first four years, backdated to 2012. Healthcare contributions would have been between 4 and 8 percent, depending on salary; new hires would pay between 10 and 15 percent. But Astorino rejected that deal, and the union has filed a complaint with the State Public Relations Board, alleging his rejection violates public-labor laws. That complaint is pending.

Belinda Miles, EdD, WCC president

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Meanwhile, the faculty also has been without a contract since 2011. “It’s tough economic times; we don’t expect huge salary increases, but it’s a long time since we’ve had one,” says Mel Bienenfeld, a math professor and president of the WCC Federation of Teachers. “We just want what’s reasonably fair.” (Adjunct professors have no pensions or benefits.) The faculty is under pressure to increase student success at the same time the college administration is making changes with little faculty input, Bienenfeld asserts. He and other WCC faculty met with county legislators to express concerns about their relationship with Belinda Miles, EdD, who was appointed college president in 2015.

This fall, the college board of trustees extended Miles’ contract until 2021 and gave her a 2 percent merit increase for meeting performance goals. Miles’ raise increased the frustration for both college unions. In a statement, Miles said: “I cannot speak for the first four years of unsettled contract negotiations with faculty and staff.” But, she stressed, “Finalizing the outstanding contracts is among the administration’s top priorities.”

Westchester Labor Primer The 411 on county unions

Eight main unions bargain with Westchester County Government. Five are related to law enforcement. Two represent the county police — the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) and the Superior Officer Benevolent Association (SPBA). A third bargaining unit covers investigators in the district attorney’s office. Corrections officers are represented by the Corrections Officer Benevolent Association (COBA) and the Corrections Superior Officers Benevolent Association (SOA). 

Those five bargaining units are pretty straightforward, as is the sixth, the New York State Nurses Association, which represents Health Department nurses.

Here’s where things start to get messy. 

For reasons dating back to some odd political deal-making during long-gone county administrations, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters represents lawyers and middle management.

“Historically, everyone in the county was in one group but paid at different levels,” explains a former county employee who asked not to be identified. “Then, the unions started to separate out. A large group split off in the [19]70s. There was no representation for management, so former County Executive Andrew O’Rourke [1983-1997], who was trying to negotiate a pay raise for his management, allegedly called the head of the local Teamsters and said, ‘I’m going to give you a bunch of management employees. They’re easy, with no grievances, and they’ll pay dues.’”

To this day, the Teamsters represent the county’s middle management. The Teamsters, as well as the unions representing the police, corrections officers, investigators, and nurses, currently all have signed contracts. And, after negotiating with the Astorino administration, all seven contribute to their healthcare insurance. The CSEA is the remaining holdout. 

Kate Stone Lombardi, a journalist, has been covering Westchester for more than 20 years.

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