Bob Pierre often works on his days off. Not because he gets paid to do it or because his boss asks him to, but because he believes so strongly in the work he's doing for his union brothers. “I myself believe that unions are a very good thing,” said Pierre. “I have been unit president for the past eight years, and I believe that you have to be there for your members. Sometimes that means having to do something on your day off or come into work from vacation if something important needs taking care of.”
Pierre's dedication, along with the hard work of many of his union brothers, has helped raise his public works department to the high level of quality it is at today. Pierre, equipment operator for the city of Cohoes, N.Y. (population 15,500), is unit president of the municipality's department of public works. A member of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME), he heads up Local 801 of CSEA, which is part of New York's public employees' union.
All 40 members of the Cohoes public works department belong to CSEA Local 801. They take care of all city operations, from the water treatment plant to the sanitary sewer lines to trash collection. The department also completes road repair, oversees snow removal, and installs and maintains stormwater lines. “It's varied—we do a multitude of things,” said Pierre. It's a “breath of fresh air” to do so many different jobs, and Pierre never tires of the many tasks that are put before him.
But things haven't always been so positive. When a previous mayor tried to privatize the water department, Pierre and his union brothers protested the proposal. They went door to door, passed out fliers, and generally argued the possible loss of union jobs. Pierre and his colleague, George Hebert, eventually won their fight and the water department remained under public city control, but Pierre said the mayor punished them by putting them on the back of a garbage truck for 14 months. “We showed him—we did the best job we could,” said Pierre. He and Hebert were commended for their excellence in trash removal and had a few good laughs along the way. Plus, the mayor was voted out of office in the next term, and the newly elected official is on better terms with the department.
NEGOTIATING THE CONTRACT
One of the primary reasons public works employees join a union is the strong contracts for benefits and other perks. “The biggest benefit to belonging to a union is that over the years the union has been able to negotiate contracts that have improved health care benefits for all of our members,” said Pierre. “We receive a lot of discounts when we purchase items such as cars, trips, lodging, and many other things just by showing a union card.”
As a member of CSEA, Pierre and his colleagues benefit from collective bargaining agreements that the union can work out between the employees and city management. “CSEA negotiates more than 1100 separate collective bargaining agreements with localities across the state,” said Albany, N.Y.-based CSEA president Danny Donohue. “We represent the county employees in most of New York's counties and, as an example, have one master contract that covers all the employees in our bargaining unit, no matter what type of work or department they're under—their common interest as county employees is what's known as the community of interest.”
“The biggest benefit to joining a union is the right to vote on the contract,” said George Lawson, safety and training coordinator for the Delaware County, N.Y., department of public works. As the unit president of CSEA Local 813 for the county, Lawson encourages everyone to join the union. Since the department is a “closed shop,” employees still pay dues, even if they don't become a union member. “There are no negative aspects to joining for us—you pay dues anyway,” he said. “And without a union, you are leaving yourself wide open to management change.”
Job security and a voice in the future of the organization are key benefits to being in a union. “Employees who feel like they're treated fairly and have input in the workplace will generally be more productive workers,” said CSEA's Donohue. By improving this communication between the employee and his boss, the employee often shares good ideas on how to improve operations or save money for the municipality.
BENEFITS AND PAY
Fair pay for employees—union or non-union—usually is a hot topic for any public works official. Numbers vary depending on who you talk to, but union wages are generally higher than that of non-union public works employees. According to a recent exclusive survey of PUBLIC WORKS readers, the median salary for a union worker was about 10% more than that of a non-union employee. Other sources quote that difference as being as high as 25% more for union workers. CSEA, which represents about 40,000 workers in the public works field, indicated that the average member earns about $31,000 per year.
Benefits like insurance, retirement plans, and other health-related items are usually the main talking point when everybody thinks of unions. Joan Raymond, an AFSCME member and president of Local 127 of the city of San Diego's Employees' Union, said she relies on strength in numbers to secure a fair contract. “It's important to be part of a collective family of workers who are united in their goal of having a secure job and retirement for themselves and their families, especially at a time when our pensions and health benefits are under attack locally, statewide, and nationally by profit-motivated private interests and corporations who finance politicians,” she said.