April 1, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
“I thought we could do better in the areas where membership feels separated from the union,” says Maf Misbah Uddin, president of the New York City Accountants, Statisticians & Actuaries, Local 1407 of District Council 37. Since he took office in 2000, he’s been working hard to get the rank and file more involved, a philosophy he calls “bringing the union to the membership.”
Local 1407, founded in 1951, has about 2,200 members. It’s the 11th largest of the 53 locals in DC 37, where Uddin is treasurer. More than half work in the Department of Finance, the comptroller’s office, or the city’s five retirement systems, but it has members in every city agency, 18 City University colleges, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the New York City Housing Authority, and the Health and Hospitals Corporation. The work they do includes auditing public agencies’ books, examining city tax returns, and calculating payrolls and retirement benefits.
To get members more involved, they go out to workplaces—some of which have as few as five members—and hold meetings at lunchtime, teaching people about pensions, explaining the contract, and passing out forms members need to get reimbursed for dental expenses. “When they know that information is available to them and it is easily reached, it gives them the feeling that ‘yes, the union is there,’” Uddin says, instead of feeling like the union is just collecting dues.
“The most effective communication is face to face,” says vice president Jed Matalon. “There’s no substitute. Many other locals have imitated us. No other local did a lunchtime meeting until we did it.”
In 2000, Uddin says, only a quarter of Local 1407’s members had signed up for pensions, and three-fourths were provisional employees with no job security. “We told them how important it was, being a civil servant,” he says, and the union reimbursed filing fees for members who took civil-service exams. Now more than 90% of the members have civil-service status, and all have signed up for pensions. And where once only a handful of members traveled to Albany for AFSCME and DC 37’s annual lobbying days, now “20-30-40 go.”
All this proved crucial when the recession hit in 2008, and former mayor Michael Bloomberg laid off 18,000 provisional workers, including 10,000 DC 37 members. The Local 1407 members who had become permanent civil servants were protected. The union has also been working without a contract since 2009, when Bloomberg offered them a three-year wage freeze.
“My members know they don’t have a contract, but I don’t think they’re blaming us,” says Uddin. “They think we are doing everything we can, because we are going to them every month and explaining it.”
Uddin advocates modifying the state’s Taylor Law—which bans public employees from striking—to have a third-party arbitrator settle disputes in situations like this, in which the mayor did not bargain “in good faith.” He says the city could raise the $7-8 billion it would cost to give workers retroactive raises by reinstating its commuter tax, taxing stock transfers, or reducing real-estate tax credits.
An immigrant from Bangladesh, Uddin is now one of the highest-ranking Asian-Americans in the U.S. labor movement. Unlike the engineers of Local 375, though, who are 40% of South Asian descent, Local 1407 had only three Bangladeshi members when Uddin was elected. When he first became active in the union, he recalls, “when I asked a question, they did not understand my accent,” but when he ran, “we made sense with our agenda and approach.”