Ocotber 3, 2013
By Steven Wishnia
On Long Island, there are thousands of Civil Service Employees Association Region 1 members who work for local governments and school districts—so the union gets involved in elections from town councilmembers to school-district budgets, says longtime political director Gretchen Penn.
The CSEA’s endorsement process gives members a distinctively strong voice, says Penn. Members in local jurisdictions send their recommendations “up the chain.” The regional committee decides endorsements in local races, and the state committee does for state-level elections. The process is time-consuming but in-depth and provides stability, she says. The union doesn’t make endorsements by party, she emphasizes, but of candidates “who reflect pro-public-service-employee beliefs.” It campaigns to its members by phone calls, visits, and postcards.
Region 1’s most recent issue campaigns have been fighting the Cuomo administration’s plan to close nine state psychiatric hospitals and trying to get subsidies for in-home child care restored.
One of the nine is the Sagamore Children’s Psychiatric Center in Dix Hills. The 54 children aged 9-17 in care there will be moved to consolidated facilities in Queens or the Bronx. Penn finds it ironic that the state has a program to keep juvenile offenders close to home, “but if you are a child that’s suffering from schizophrenia or a bout of deep depression, you’re not close to home.” The state Office of Mental Health commissioner said it could provide videoconferencing so parents who can’t make the trip could talk to their children, she adds.
The union is participating in the local “Save Sagamore” coalition, informing residents about the plan—it would close the hospital by July—and spreading the word through social media, blogs, and on-line petitions. Over the summer, CSEA members met with state legislators from Long Island, and the result was a joint hearing on the plan Sept. 9 by the state Senate and Assembly mental health committees, which Penn calls “a great show of education.”
Region 1 also represents in-home child-care providers, who have been badly hit by cuts in the state block grants that cover child-care subsidies. Before 2008, Long Island families generally qualified for the subsidies if their income was 185-200 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2011, Suffolk County reduced that to the actual poverty level, $9.18 an hour for a single parent with two children, cutting off subsidies for 2,100 kids.
Providers held rallies, lobbied county legislators, and met with County Executive Steve Bellone, urging them to restore the cuts. The result was that this year, “they found money in the county budget” to raise the income threshold to 150 percent of poverty, regaining subsidies for 1,200 kids.
“Most of lobbying is actually education,” says Penn. “It’s not just taking your point of view. We did a lot of education with county legislators on this formula. Our membership did that because that’s their job.” The providers, she adds, knew the details of the formula better than the legislators, and could also talk about “the devastating effect that losing child care has on an economy.”