April 9, 2015
By Marc Bussanich
New York, NY—Now that New York has passed a new budget, most public and private sector unions are waiting to see how certain provisions may affect their memberships. The president of the largest union representing civil service workers in New York said that, alas, the state is going to increase staffing at several state agencies to bring relief to current staff forced to work mandatory overtime caring for New York’s most vulnerable people.
Danny Donohue has been president of the 300,000-member Civil Service Employees Association for over 20 years. Some states in the country don’t have that amount of people represented in the whole workforce, let alone in one union. While he was working as an attendant at the Central Islip Psychiatric Center, he won a write-in campaign to become the local president representing 2,700 members. He credits CSEA’s large membership to the union’s commitment to growth.
“We’re stronger today than we ever have been. If anything, we’re bigger than all but four or five international unions. We’ve been able to do that by committing the resources to organizing, and committing the people, time and money. We recognize that because you’re big doesn’t mean you get slow; you have to go out there and be aggressive and remind people that labor unions aren’t something just of the 1930s, 40s and 50’s, but that they’re needed today [in order to] to give people the respect they deserve for the jobs they do,” said Donohue.
The Associated Press recently reported on a 35-year old single mother of four children who fell asleep at her job as a nurse at a state group home in Syracuse. According to the story, prosecutors argue that the nurse, represented by CSEA, was responsible for the death of a patient who was supposed to receive supplemental oxygen from a mask. The union quickly responded to the story, announcing on its website that the Associated Press story was misleading because it took an isolated case of a health care worker accused of sleeping on the job to make unfair generalizations about workers who care for people with developmental disabilities.
Mr. Donohue noted in our interview that the Associated Press report failed to mention that many of his members working with persons with developmental disabilities face excessive mandatory overtime because there isn’t enough staff available to care for patients. It’s been more than eight years when the state last increased staffing at institutions caring for persons with developmental disabilities, according to Donohue. He welcomed the news when the state passed its budget that calls for hiring more staff.
“We welcome the recognition by the state that they needed to finally address excessive overtime issues, especially at the Office of Mental Health and Office for People with Developmental Disabilities. For the first time in at least eight years, the state will add about 500 new staff positions to treat patients who suffer from mental illness and development disabilities,” Donohue said.
With a membership of 300,000 we asked Donohue is there any more room for growth from organizing.
“I believe there is room because whenever local government in towns or villages throughout the state decide to privatize services, we’ll organize those workers to represent them in the private sector, as we did with childcare workers in New York City.”
We then asked him what has it meant for him to be a union member and leader in New York for almost 40 years.
“It’s taught me the same things I learned in the service and in my family life—that we’re all in this together; that everyone needs to understand we have to look out for each other and we have to make sure that no one gets abused or treated badly. If anything, if you work hard you should get a chance to do better, to have a better pension and a better life so that you can send your kids to college. That’s what it means for me,” said Donohue.