Friday, December 12, 2014

Whatever happened to "We the People?"

By Ove Overmyer

You would have to be living under a rock not to know we are living in very troubled times. Our local communities are under siege. Race relations in America might be at an all-time worst, public safety for all is in question, the War on Terror is out of control, ISIS is knocking on your door, extreme weather and climate change is keeping cartographers busy, demonizing poor people is becoming a sport for some GOP legislators, cyber security attacks on Hollywood and our big banks—the list goes on and on.

If anything, these difficult times require thoughtful analysis, and not knee-jerk reflexive, feel-good social media diatribes that add nothing to our public conversations. Contrary to popular belief, name calling, taking sides and creating petitions to ask elected officials to resign is unproductive and not really educating anyone with respect to changing hearts and minds. It may feel cathartic for the moment, but these expressions of hate and division are exactly what keep us from progressing as one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. It does, however, highlight the deep divisions that still exist in our communities-- especially when it involves notions of race, nation of origin, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity and equality.

Since the midterm elections last month, the melodramatic lunacy in Washington has reduced both conservatives and liberals to a puddle of tears. Locally, our communities are being torn apart by political operatives who would rather focus on what makes us different rather than what makes us human. And for the record, after what just happened in Congress last night with respect to the offensive mark-ups of a bill that provided a big bank bailout and relaxed campaign finance provisions, which by the way will make it harder for the average citizen’s voice to be heard, can only be described as reckless and gut wrenching for the majority of American people who care about democracy.

The fact is, not everyone in your community wants you to have the same opportunities they have had— and they are the same folks that refuse to pay their fair share of taxes to keep our systems of government operating at substandard levels. And please, if you are reading this and absolutely hate government and think it cannot improve the quality of our lives, point your boney finger at corporate lobbyists, elected officials and the bureaucracies that have produced these results—not the hard working rank-and-file working families that deliver these services on a daily basis. Many of them do not even make a living wage and will live out their golden years in destitution.

And certainly, I don’t have to intellectually dig down very deep to tell you how I feel about what our biggest challenges are either— or how we can go about raising the standard of living for everyone who lives in our beloved communities. Our world’s biggest social ill today is income inequality and lack of meaningful gainful employment. This happenstance is the root cause of our inability as a nation and a world citizen to get a handle on global health disparities, world banks, educating our children, poverty, homelessness, lack of living wage jobs, and the list goes on.

photo: Ove Overmyer
In order for us to build strong communities, we need to advocate for a progressive tax structure that is in proportion to the means and ability to pay for the vital services we demand and cannot do by ourselves as individuals. Unfortunately, since the Great Recession of 2008 we have seen systemic defunding of public services and at the same time, our tax dollars and priorities have favored multi-national corporations and banks (in the form of tax breaks) -- the same minority of wealthy people who are basically insulated from any financial harm whatsoever.

We need to invest in public infrastructure and the public systems that support private sector growth. We need to right-size government services to create strong communities. We need to invest in public education—I do not want to raise my children in an uneducated community that does not put a premium value on creating successful outcomes for future generations. I also don’t want them around stupid people.

Calling yourself a taxpayer does not give you victim rights

For generations, conservatives and many Republicans have casted American people as tax victims. They moan that we are just “taxpayers” bearing up under the obligation to pay into federal and state coffers. Some are stoic in the face of the inevitability of the old saying “death and taxes,” while others burn with resentment like the libertarian Tea Party stalwarts who think not everyone deserves the same breaks as they do.

All of these stories reflect a complete miscalculation to the reality of our local communities. Yes, it true—Rochester, NY and Monroe County for the most part are extremely generous and giving communities based largely on the benevolence of nonprofit, religious and charitable organizations. But when it comes to supporting public systems that assist poor and working families, all you need to do is see a County government slashing child care subsidies and witness the vile rhetoric coming from Spencerport residents who object to “city kids” (code for non-white) attending public school in their suburban community.

What is missing from this picture is any sense of a larger meaning of what it means to be socially responsible in the first place. Where do we draw the line? Most other things that require effort and sacrifice-- family, service, charity, and volunteerism-- have virtuous, or at least redeeming, meaning associated with them. That meaning helps us face life’s challenges with a sense of a larger purpose that makes these acts worth the investment. That is the definition of community.

The political right’s NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitudes and the stories they tell about paying taxes that support public systems of good reflect a chronic disconnection from our role as responsible citizens; they are devoid of any civic meaning. The real meaning of taxes and being socially responsible supports services that underpin our public life and connect us to one another through our communities, our states, our country and our collective future.

When we lose sight of this, taxes are seen as merely depriving us of our individual property. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as stewards of common good, as citizen managers of public systems and structures that secure the city, state and country we live in, then taxes and our volunteerism are our contributions to something much more important than our individual being. We all need to be telling a new and meaningful story about our civic responsibilities that celebrates the concrete opportunity it offers “we the people.” 


Monday, December 8, 2014

Returning to Work: Challenges and Opportunities

By Ove Overmyer

When employees experience a break in service due to an extended illness, pregnancy or injury, it is often accompanied by undue stress, uncertainty and anxiety. Returning to work, whether it is with some restrictions or with no limitations whatsoever can be an incredibly daunting hurdle for even the most seasoned professional.

Most studies show that having a well-functioning union and good stewardship is one of the best ways to fight stress in the workplace. A union gives workers a vehicle to deal with most of the issues that workers refer to as the leading causes of their stress.

If you are lucky enough to have effective union stewardship in your workplace, chances are the employee returning to work has a very good chance to make a complete and smooth transition back to the working world. In this article, we will introduce some helpful guidelines to assist you in your effort to help fellow union members successfully return to work.

First of all, union stewards must maintain credibility by being honest with your fellow members, co-workers and management. A steward who misleads or skirts the truth won’t remain credible for very long. An accurate assessment of the workers mental and physical well-being is in everyone’s best interest, even if the documentation says otherwise.

Be as knowledgeable as you possibly can about the collective bargaining agreement and terms and conditions of employment, work rules and policies, supervisor and manager responsibilities, and the issues impacting all the workers you represent.

Be a reliable source of information. If you are asked a question and you don’t know the answer, say “I don’t know” – then get the information and get back to the member as soon as possible. And when you say you are going to do something, always follow through.

An effective union steward should always be accessible to fellow members and management. Many times that means talking with members after regular working hours and being there for them when they are in crisis. Being a good listener always helps too.

Be supportive and thoughtful of workers returning to work. When you are approached with complaints about a fellow employee who is having difficulty returning to work, offer them understanding, resources, encouragement and guidance in addressing their situation.

When you build relationships of trust and solidarity over time, you will probably be more successful when asking union members and management to support a co-worker returning to work. You can motivate others leading by example. Take the initiative to talk to members one-on-one. It is a more personal and effective way to share important information about the worksite, especially when a co-worker is re-entering the workforce.

Ask your employer to consider return-to-work strategies

Many return-to-work (RTW) programs suggested by the United States Department of Labor were originally designed to reduce workers' compensation costs for employers. However, they can do much more-- they can improve productivity and worker morale across the workplace; they can save employees time and money and they can protect employees and employers from loss of talent. If you do not have these programs in place at your worksite, you should recommend making it an agenda item at your next labor-management meeting.

Examples of effective RTW strategies include offering the opportunity to work part time from home, telecommuting, modifying work duties, modifying schedules, and implementing reasonable accommodations to provide employees with the tools and resources they need to carry out their specific job responsibilities.

In many workplaces, in both the public and private sector, flexible work arrangements, accessible technology and office automation have increased the capabilities of employees and made it easier for them to do their jobs in alternative ways.

This allows the employee to protect their earning power while at the same time boost employer productivity. Furthermore, in many instances, the ability to return to work after injury or illness plays an important role in the employee's actual recovery and healing process.

Another recommendation to help ease the transition for a co-worker returning to the job site is starting an Employee Resource Group (ERG). These groups can help encourage employees to work together to address health-related problems and issues that impact each other and their workplace.

And finally, communication, flexibility, understanding and a good support network are often the most important aspects to consider when managing a fellow union member’s return to work-- and helping them find the right combination to the work-life balance equation.  

Overmyer is the president and chief steward for the Civil Service Employees Associations’ City of Rochester, NY Library Workers Local 828 Unit 7420.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Town of Brighton CSEA workers will convene at town hall meeting on December 10

Brighton, NY -- On Wednesday, December 10, CSEA represented workers for the Town of Brighton will be attending their town board meeting to educate the community on some recent developments concerning public services and questionable representation by town officials. At 7:00 pm, we invite the community to attend the town hall meeting at Brighton Town Hall, 2300 Elmwood Avenue to hear the personal testimonies of workers from the Department of Public Works. 

Despite the fact the Town of Brighton is holding some of its workers to a different standard, employees continue to come to work each day to provide high quality, professional and essential services to the residents of the Town of Brighton.

We understand the town is going through a tough financial period. However, we find no justification of how the town lawyers are negotiating a new contract with CSEA represented employees. The collective bargaining agreement for the CSEA represented employees for the Town of Brighton expired December 31, 2013. 

The negotiations are in a stand still—both parties are waiting for the results of a fact-finding procedure. In the meantime, workers feel it necessary to let the public know how uncivil and unwilling the town lawyers are to a remedy of the new contract language.

The main sticking point of negotiating a new contract is the healthcare benefit. When the Town of Brighton opted out of the MVP health care consortium, health care cost for town employees rose significantly and the lawyer who is negotiating the deal is unwilling to compromise on the issue. The workers who are represented by CSEA have been very fair and reasonable throughout negotiations. The workers have made several cost saving proposals that haven’t even been considered by the town or its lawyers.

CSEA is looking for a fair contract that recognizes the value and importance of the work we do for Brighton residents, while keeping in mind the needs of the town. We hope the town will be receptive to our proposals and work out an agreement that is fair to both parties in the coming days.

For media inquiries, please contact Lynn Miller at 716-691-6555 ex.5212