As the U.S. Supreme Court readies to hear arguments in a case that could decimate the finances of public-sector unions, a small Northern New York local has singlehandedly demonstrated the value of union membership and the critical role unions play in protecting workers.
The South Jefferson Teachers Association, which represents some 155 members just south of Watertown, saved its retirees from losing their drug coverage after a cost-cutting move by the district would have shifted those 65 and older from the district's prescription plan to Medicare Part D.
"It was the right thing to do," said SJTA President Sarah Morris. "Our retirees worked so hard for good contracts, and they should have the same" protections for which they fought.
Morris learned of the unilateral change after being notified by a retiree who received a letter from the district. She immediately began working to rectify the matter, bringing in NYSUT labor relations and legal staff to guide and support the local.
"If we didn't have NYSUT's help, we'd still be negotiating," said Morris, specifically noting the work of LRS Mike Cocco and Watertown Regional Office staff, whom she called "instrumental in helping resolve this issue."
The union had three months from the May 18 coverage change to serve the district with a Notice of Claim. "Thankfully," said Morris, South Jeff retirees Sandra Haight and Anna Mae Cooper "stepped up and signed the claim." Once it was served, the conversation between the union and the district began moving quickly toward a resolution that, ultimately, restored the retirees' prescription coverage back to its original plan.
"I truly believe the district didn't understand the ramifications," Morris said. "It never meant to put seniors under any type of stress," and the district worked cooperatively with the union to resolve the issue.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments early next year in Janus v. AFSCME. The case will weigh whether workers who have their salary, health coverage and retirement protections negotiated by a union should pay their fair share.
While South Jeff's success in restoring retirees' drug coverage underscores the value of union membership, Morris said it also highlights the importance of maintaining relationships with members, and management, too.
"What our local learned along the way," Morris said, "was that a good working relationship with the district will resolve issues quicker, and how important it is to be connected with your retirees."