Jordan Carleo- Evangelist, Inside Politics, Albany Times Union
Friday, December 12, 2014
ALBANY — Today, a lesson in political tightropes and unintended consequences.
Two months ago, Mayor Kathy Sheehan proposed privatizing the city’s roughly 60 part-time crossing guards — a savings plan ultimately shelved amid resistance from council members and a commitment by the police department to better manage the workers.The city’s chief gripe was the overtime racked up when police or parking enforcement officers — full-time unionized employees — had to be detailed to fill crossing posts because the guards did not show up for work or quit with little notice.Now, the crossing guards — citing the outsourcing effort and cuts in hours and benefits — want a union. And SEIU Local 200United, fresh off a victory with College of Saint Rose adjunct professors, is happy to oblige.
Sheehan says she’s OK with that and is adamant that the city won’t interfere.
But the union wants more than non-interference: It’s calling on the first-term Democrat to voluntarily recognize the bargaining unit rather than forcing it to go to the state Public Employment Relations Board, a bureaucratic certification process that could include holding a formal election.
What amounts to a procedural disagreement puts Sheehan, who ran last year with the support of the labor-backed Working Families Party, in a delicate position. Local 200United is closely aligned with the local WFP — a mirror of the close statewide alliance between the two — and some local party leaders have been strong Sheehan supporters.
To wit: Kaseem Moultrie, the Local200 staffer organizing the guards, was a member of the WFP panel that interviewed and ultimately endorsed her last year over rival Corey Ellis.
Sheehan says that in declining to voluntarily recognize the union, the city is simply following past practice — noting her administration did not oppose CSEA’s organization of Department of General Services supervisors earlier this year but did require them to go through PERB.
That process, Sheehan said, is meant to protect the workers as much as the city.
“We have no intention of engaging in any sort of campaign to dissuade these employees from forming a union,” Sheehan said. “I fully respect and believe that these workers have the right to be represented by a union if they so choose, but PERB ensures that they are represented by the union that they want to be represented by.”
Still, some in the city’s progressive community want Sheehan to reverse course.
“I would hope that it’s still under review,” said Anita Thayer, a Sheehan supporter who is secretary to the Capital District WFP and co-chair of the local board of Citizen Action. “I think she inherited an office that has all kinds of pitfalls, and I think she’s done a great job of trying to pull things together. And I think she values all of the people in the city.”
Four council members — Judd Krasher, Frank Commisso Jr., Jack Flynn and Ron Bailey — have signed a letter calling on Sheehan to voluntarily recognize the union, as has Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, who is also the chair of the county Democratic Party.
The crossing guards have been buffeted by the city’s tight finances before.
In 2011, Albany ended its practice of paying them for twice the hours that many actually spent at their posts. Until then, the guards were paid for 25 hours a week despite many of them working 10 or fewer.
City lawmakers boosted the guards’ wage by nearly 20 percent that year, but the new policy of only paying for hours worked still meant pay cuts for many. Also gone: Pay for days school wasn’t in session, like Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.
“We want our time back, all our benefits,” said Mae Clark, a crossing guard since 1997 currently posted at Livingston Avenue and Henry Johnson Boulevard. “Everything they took from us, we want it back.”
While Sheehan’s budget initially proposed handing the crossing guards over to a private company, the compromise to keep them in-house includes a roughly nine percent hourly raise to $14.51 next year to combat the high vacancy rate.
“I was a big fan and still support the mayor in her election, but she ran on a platform of labor and creating jobs and doing all these great things,” Moultrie, the organizer, said. “It’s a new day. A new mayor. Let’s do the right thing.”
Sheehan said she has “tremendous respect” for SEIU but believes the city is doing the right thing.