Jeanne Grace is a forester for the city of Ithaca. Her duties include supervising all the city’s parks and street trees and overseeing park maintenance. She freely admits that interpreting legal documents and other contracts isn’t her strong suit.
That’s why when Grace and fellow members of the City Executive Association — a 20-member association of Ithaca municipal employees — felt they were being outmaneuvered at the bargaining table, they reached out to NYSUT for help.
“We’ve been talking about affiliating for a while, but lately the city has taken more of a hardline approach to negotiations,” said Grace, CEA president, explaining that once the city brought an attorney to negotiation sessions, she worried they were at a disadvantage. “The city attorney would say something, and we weren’t sure if it was correct or not — we needed someone with negotiation experience.”
After a full year without a contract, the group turned to the New York State AFL-CIO for advice about affiliating. CEA partnered with other AFL-CIO-affiliated Ithaca-employee unions last fall to advocate for wage increases and other issues as the Ithaca Workers Coalition; they were impressed by the resources available to union members. An AFL-CIO contact suggested reaching out to NYSUT. “Even though we weren’t affiliated, they went out of their way to help us,” said Jeremy Miller, a city fleet manager and CEA member who helped Grace explore options. “Only when we got together with other city unions were we able to get any traction at all.
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“We saw the power of being united and wanted to be part of that,” Miller continued.
Key to affiliating with NYSUT was CEA’s ability to maintain its identity. “We’re small, but everyone is very involved and interested and while we wanted the other resources NYSUT provides, we also wanted to maintain our autonomy,” said Grace.
Although neither Grace nor Miller expected to affiliate with a union renowned for representing educators, NYSUT members work in a wide array of professions, from health care to municipal work and even lifeguards.
“Public support for collective bargaining is on an upward swing and NYSUT is ready to help workers fight back against inequality and the forces of privatization by growing our union,” said Mike Deeley, NYSUT director of membership growth and organizing. He noted that according to a 2022 Gallup Poll, 71 percent of Americans approve of unions and 40 percent of them deem unions “extremely important,” the highest level since 1965.
“We still have many unorganized groups and independent associations that could benefit from the far-ranging services and benefits NYSUT representation provides,” said Deeley. “If you know someone we should speak to about joining NYSUT, we want to hear from you!”
Once CEA leaders made the decision to affiliate with NYSUT, members unanimously approved the measure. Surprising to Grace was the city’s reaction. “They received the letter [detailing CEA’s affiliation] and just said ‘alright’,” she said.
A bargaining date is set for the first week of April and the group hopes to secure wage increases and safeguard existing benefits. “We’ve had years with no raises, and we want to get our jobs competitive again,” said Grace. “We have lots of empty positions because our starting wages are so low.”
In the meantime, the local’s bargaining team worked with NYSUT labor relations specialist Mike Johnson setting up the union’s bylaws, constitution and official structure.
CEA members are excited for their first bargaining session as an official union.
“The unions were always welcoming to us, but now I feel like we’re more a part of the group,” said Grace. “We’re all working toward the same common goal of better treatment.”