July 21, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
New York—“I’m the one that gets out there,” says Lorraine Guest, president of District Council 1707 of AFSCME. “If I see something that’s not right, I’m going to get involved. I’m not a sit-back person.” Elected in May in the vote that also brought Victoria Mitchell in as executive director, Guest divides her time between union business and working as a staff nurse at a Federation Employment & Guidance Service facility for the developmentally disabled in the Bronx.
DC 1707, formed in 1973, is best known for representing the city’s child-care workers, but it comprises six unions with about 20,000 members. Local 95 is Head Start employees at more than 200 centers in New York City and Long Island. Local 107 is workers at national membership and fundraising organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and several Jewish groups. Local 205’s 6,000 members work at more than 350 child-care centers in the city. Local 215 covers social-service workers, from mental-health organizations to foster-care placement, and Local 253 is education employees. Local 389 is home-care workers; with 7,000 members, it’s the union’s the fastest-growing local.
Guest grew up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, and got involved with the union while working at Brooklyn Hospital in 1973. Even before then, she says, because she had an identical twin sister, “I never thought of myself in the singular. I always thought of myself in the plural.” She joined Local 215 after she started at FEGS in 1989, became a shop steward in 1992, and now heads the local.
The new leadership’s top priorities, she says, are serving the membership better and expanding the union while keeping it politically active. Just keeping track of contracts is a large job: Local 215 members work for 36 different agencies, and it has multiple contracts with some, such as Catholic Charities. It just negotiated a three-year contract with FEGS for raises of 2¼% in the first and second years and 2% in the third.
Legislatively, DC 1707 wants to get workers for nonprofits the same protection from workplace violence public employees have. The state legislature passed such a bill in 2007, but then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer vetoed it.
It’s a common occupational hazard, Guest says. In one incident, a Local 389 member was shot and killed by her client’s grandson. “She had been complaining about it, complaining about it, and the agency did not act on it. You know you can’t prevent workplace violence, but there should be an avenue,” Guest explains. “We want to have laws in place that employers have some accountability.”
“We want to get something passed at both the city and the state levels,” says political director G.L. Tyler. The state legislative session is over until next year, he adds, but the union is working with Queens City Councilmember Rory Lancman.
As many of the services DC 1707 members provide are paid for by public funds, however, it’s difficult to separate wages from politics. When New York State put Medicaid under private managed-care companies in 2011, that reduced reimbursement rates for home care—so a lot of Local 389 members got laid off or had their hours and wages cut. The union has lobbied in Washington and Albany “trying to offset that,” says Guest, and it also wants to make sure that the budget for Mayor de Blasio’s universal pre-kindergarten plan includes the two- and three-year-olds its members care for.
All six of DC 1707’s top leaders are now women, something still unusual in the union movement. “Most of our workforce is women,” says Guest. “I think it’s the nature of the business.”
And they take pride in caring for others. “I do this job because I love it,” Guest says. “We provide a service that most of the time nobody else wants to do. We’re taking care of the mentally retarded, people in nursing homes. We’re taking care of their mothers, their grandparents. We’re taking care of their children. If we weren’t there, where would we be in this world?”