Paid time off, fair pay and respect at work can’t be taken for granted without a union.
That’s why a group of security guards at the Patchogue Medford Union Free School District in Suffolk County on Long Island worked with NYSUT’s experienced team of organizers and labor relations staff to unionize in December. NYSUT is chalking up big organizing wins across the state thanks to the hard work of its network of union organizers. Over the past year, the statewide union has brought hundreds of public and private workers across New York into the union fold.
“If we don’t work, we don’t get paid,” said security guard Denise Page-Hastings noting that, despite providing years of dedicated service and having a roster of experienced law enforcement professionals, the Patchogue Medford guards lack paid days off and fair compensation. “I’m going into my 19th year, and I started at $18 an hour and now I’m at $21.50. … I feel like they’re treating us like cheap labor.”
Patchogue-Medford’s roster of just over 100 guards became one of NYSUT’s newest locals after a whirlwind organizing campaign. “I have been in conversation with the guards in Patchogue-Medford for a couple of years. But when they reached out to me this past fall, I could tell that these workers had reached their breaking point and were tired of being the only group without a union in their district,” said NYSUT organizer Alexandra Castillo-Kesper.
After that first contact, there were consistent scheduled meetings with the guards and NYSUT’s organizing staff, where they discussed priorities for their first contract, in addition to NYSUT’s organizational structure, their legal protections, and the work involved in collectively forming a public-sector local.
“My objective as an organizer is to establish a foundation of trust with workers during a new organizing campaign, and that they feel and know that their membership with NYSUT is a partnership,” said Castillo-Kesper. “This was especially important to this group, where the vast majority of members are retired from careers in law enforcement, in addition to being parents to alumni and current students enrolled in the school district.”
Several guards reached out to Castillo-Kesper after a colleague in a neighboring NYSUT local provided them with her contact information. Castillo-Kesper explained that word of mouth has sparked several organizing campaigns. Security guard Brendan Grogan believes organizing was the right decision for the group. “I felt we weren’t being represented the way we should be,” said Grogan. “Other units at the district had representation and were receiving benefits that we were not. And it became obvious that without a union we were never going to get those benefits.”
Fellow guard Michael Zotto agreed. “This summer we asked for a $3 per hour raise and three to five days off,” he said. “The district came back to us in late August early September and offered a $.50 hourly raise.”
Although the guards have an amicable relationship with the district, the offer felt like an insult, said Zotto. Worse still, without a union the group was powerless to push back and ask for more. “Once they [the district leaders] made the decision, that was it.”
“That was a turning point for lots of people,” said Page-Hastings noting that soon after meeting Castillo-Kesper and learning the legal process to form a union in New York state, she worked with them to develop an organizing strategy to identify group leaders and contact unit members. Page-Hastings, Zotto, Grogan and others divided up the guard list and began distributing union cards. The plan allowed the team to collect signed union authorization cards from 95 percent of the guards in less than a week.
The newly formed Patchogue-Medford Security Employees Union hopes that by joining NYSUT they can negotiate benefits similar with what other bargaining units receive including equitable raises, paid time off, longevity and pay for holidays and for staffing events like basketball and football games. In the meantime, the fledgling local is setting up bylaws and a constitution and electing officers, an executive board and a negotiating team. Page-Hastings intends to run for union secretary; Zotto, a former leader of the Islip Teachers Aides Association, will run for president and hopes to have a place on the negotiating team. “The best part of the union is that we’ll have a seat at the bargaining table … we’ll control our own destiny,” said Zotto.
“We’re seeing energy to form unions in libraries, health care facilities, school district support staff and higher education,” said NYSUT Director of Membership Growth and Organizing Mike Deely. “It’s a win for everyone when professionals get the respect, support and compensation they deserve in the workplace.”
If you know someone who’s interested in forming a union, contact NYSUT Organizing for information.