October 1, 2013
By Steven Wishnia
Civil Service Employees Association Local 1000, New York State’s largest public-workers union, is solidly behind the AFL-CIO’s idea of building coalitions with groups outside the union movement, says director of communications Stephen Madarasz.
Local 1000, which has about 300,000 active and retired members, has a long record of legislative work, lobbying, and mobilizing its membership, he says—but “we don’t believe that’s adequate for what we’re all facing today. With the economy coming back, but not coming back for working people, we need some fundamental change in the policy choices being made. That’s well beyond the scope of unions. We need everyone in the community to be standing together.”
The union’s biggest current issue, he says, is the state Office of Mental Health’s proposal to close nine of its 24 mental hospitals. The state hasn’t given many details of the plan, he says, but it’s likely to cut jobs and erode services. It would outsource work done by state employees to nonprofit providers that pay slightly above minimum wage, and “we’re not even seeing lip service” to replacing the closed hospitals with community-based facilities such as supervised housing.
Not everyone who needs psychiatric care should be in a hospital, Madarasz says, but “when the beds go away, the need isn’t going to go away.” The result of previous cuts, he adds, is that “Rikers Island is the largest psychiatric facility in New York State.”
CSEA members testified at public hearings about the plan around the state. The union also ran an ad campaign and is trying to find allies in local communities.
The CSEA suffered a defeat last year with the enactment of Gov. Cuomo’s Tier VI pension “reform.” It sharply reduced pensions, increased employee contributions, and raised the retirement age for state workers hired after it went into effect.
Madarasz calls that a “dark deal.” The politicians who passed it, he says, were blaming the state’s fiscal problems on workers getting pensions that are typically around $16,000 a year, instead of on “the irresponsibility of Wall Street and the big banks,” that crashed the economy and the funds’ value. And because it only affects new employees, “any savings that will come won’t be for another generation.”
As a result, he adds, the union became much more selective about who it endorses. Last year, it backed candidates in less than one-third of Assembly races and in only 16 of the 63 state Senate districts.
While the CSEA is the largest state employees’ union, more than half its members now work for local governments and school districts—and it’s learned “to not be so Albany-centric.” Doing big demonstrations at the state capitol gets media attention, Madarasz says, but legislators are far more sensitive to action in their districts. Last spring, the union did a “roadshow,” talking to members around the state about what was happening in Albany.
“You’ve got to bring it to the local level,” he says. “You have to start with people understanding what the issue is before you can get them to mobilize.”