New York City Workers Block Big Dues Increase
New York City’s clerical and administrative workers in AFSCME Local 1549 have been asked to make an unfair sacrifice. Their local officers tried to push through a big dues increase without convincing justification.
The increase passed narrowly, 161 to 137, in a February 3 vote—held during a snowstorm. No arrangements were made for members required to work the evening of the vote, and not even all the members attending got the proposed amendment in writing. Local 1549 has 15,000 members.
But after more than 400 members sent letters to the local, district, and national union with concerns about how the vote was taken, national AFSCME President Lee Saunders refused to accept the vote, blocking the increase.
Local leadership is now backing down, saying they won’t pursue it again until after members get a new contract. Members are still asking for more transparency in how their money would be used to build a stronger, fighting union.
The local’s last dues increase was in 2006, from $20 to $27.40 per two-week pay period. This new increase would have raised dues to $39.
Why So Much?
Currently, the local says it keeps only about 17 percent of the dues that members pay. The rest goes to District Council 37, which is made up of 53 AFSCME locals in New York City, and to the national union. This is because the district council pays most of the bills for the union hall and staff.
DC 37 and AFSCME increased those required payments from all locals in 2006—but Local 1549 officers said that until now they have used about $186,000 a year from the local’s reserve fund to pay the increase, a total of $1.3 million, rather than raising dues. They said the dues increase was necessary to cover the increased payments and replenish the reserves.
On the surface, this seems like a reasonable proposal ... but digging deeper reveals some problems.
Each year, the increase, $11.60 a pay period from 15,000 members, would bring in about $4.5 million more. Even a dues increase of half that amount (to $33 a pay period) would have been enough for the local to make its full payments to DC37 and AFSCME, put $1.3 million back into the reserve, and still have more than $800,000 left—all in the first year!
Where would the rest of the money have gone? Would it have been worth the sacrifice for members, having seen their standard of living fall over the past five years with the contract expired and no raises, to have so much more come out of their paychecks?
Leaders were also telling members that the increase was needed to pay for members’ extensive use of union benefits like legal services, dental, and education. But these are paid through a combination of employers’ contributions to the Benefit Funds and by DC37, not by the local.
Dues rates are set by the local’s constitution, so every increase has to be passed as a constitutional amendment, voted on by members. At a January meeting, local leaders formally presented the amendment to increase dues, but with no details on why this amount was needed.
One member asked whether any of the increase would go to higher pay for local leaders and staff. She was dismissed, ruled out of order, and escorted out of the meeting.
Members should vote on dues issues based on transparent reports of current expenses and convincing plans of how additional money will be spent. Ambitious plans could justify a dues increase—say, a massive public campaign for New York City to tax the rich and for the union to win a contract with full retroactive raises for all members. But so far this leadership has only proposed “business as usual”—but wanted unusually high dues.
Local 1549 members need more fight and less reserve. Demand a plan!
Anthony Lackhan is a clerical worker for the city, processing Medicaid applications, and a shop steward in Local 1549. Nate Franco is a social worker in the city's public hospitals, and shop steward in Local 768. With other activists, they help organize a newsletter: DC37 Rank and File For a Stronger Union, which you can read here, or follow the group on Facebook here.