Mary Sullivan was elected to a full 4-year term on Thursday as the president of the Civil Service Employees Association. She is the first woman from local government to hold the job.
The union she leads is the largest public-sector workers labor group in the state, representing workers at the local government and state level.
She sat down with us to talk about the state of the labor movement in the country, the issues facing the union in New York, the upcoming state budget, single-payer health care and more.
Capital Tonight: What would you say the biggest challenges CSEA and public sector face?
Mary Sullivan: Most of the biggest challenges I think are the fact that the tax base is shrinking, which affects the employment status of the membership there. I think the other thing is the feeling of the public that we're somehow, our members are draining all the funding and not doing anything for the money. I think it's time people started to realize we who are public employees are also taxpayers. We're contributing to the community as well as taking salaries for the work we do. And we do work for what we earn.
What are your priorities?
Better communications, more activity among our members, more engagement among the members we represent. I hope by the end of this term, our members have taken greater ownership of this union. It doesn't belong to me or the other officers elected. The union only lives and breaths because of the member and the union needs to know which direction to take.
Any legislative priorities you have this year?
Right now we're in the state budget and we do have some concerns about the aid to local governments and we're heading into negotiations with the state and employee contracts. We're also concerned because we continue to have on the stateside with mandatory overtime, which is making personal life very, very difficult for the people we represent. You can't constantly be working. You have no family life, you have no personal life, if all you do is go to work. That's got to change.
Do you see any challenges down the road with your contracts and the budget?
I think we have over the last few years created a good relationship with the governor, we have a good relationship with the Legislature, I believe. I don't think everything is going to be easy, but I'll state for the record that we will fight wherever we have to fight and whoever we have to fight with to best represent the members. If those fights take us on another path from those who are in office, so be it. Our job is to represent CSEA members.
Nationally, what's the state of labor now?
I think labor is doing very well. Janus didn't do to us what everyone thought it would. I think we're stronger for what Janus made us do to make the changes a lot of the unions made to better represent the membership. I think that the political climate in Washington will create an even greater opportunity for us to organize workers. I think people are starting to understand they need a voice in the workplace. You can't call $15 an hour a living wage.
Do you think the minimum wage should be higher than $15?
I think there should be a living wage and not talk about a minimum wage. You can't do what you need to do and have a quality life the way some people are paid. The poor have no voice if it isn't for organized labor.
Do you see younger people becoming more engaged in organized labor?
No, I don't. This generation is more transitional than previous generations, so their loyalty is not to a particular employer or a particular job. They move as they wish, we have to change that. We have to get them better educated. I'm not saying that's true about all young people, but many young people don't see -- like, you didn't see or I didn't see -- when you were 20 years old, did you worry about your retirement? You didn't even know what the heck the word meant. It's no different now. It's really no different.
A lot of young people are flocking to Bernie Sanders and single-payer health care has gotten him cross ways with labor. What's your current thinking on single-payer?
I'm not in favor of single payer. Too many people sacrificed over the years for the health care we have negotiated in our contracts. And while Bernie's right -- I heard him talking yesterday -- that it is the most difficult thing when we go to the table because of the rising cost of health care. We are at this point not going to give up the quality health care we've negotiated for some unknown single payer, something that's good for everybody, but not so good for those of us. We fear losing some of the benefits we've sacrificed at this point.
Some supporters of single-payer at the state level say you wouldn't have to negotiate health care in a contract and could focus on wages and other benefits. Is that an argument you buy?
I don't buy it because as I've just said we've sacrificed for years to get the quality health care that we've negotiated. We have no idea what single payer will provide. If you take a negotiated health benefit against Medicare, there's a difference in the quality of that health care. People who have children are more concerned about the quality and we'll battle for the health. I know personally we gave up a wage increase for quality health care. I think if we take the time to fix the Affordable Care Act and stop trying to reinvent the wheel again, we'd all be better off. I think everyone should the right to health care. I think health care is right, every American should have health care. People in my own family didn't have it before the Affordable Care Act.
To take things full circle on local governments, what are some of the things the state needs to do on the local government level?
Get rid of the 2 percent (property tax) cap, one, and understand Medicare costs to the local governments is killing their budgets and has been killing their budgets and killing their budgets for years. As an employee of the Herikmer County Department of Social Services, I know for a fact that the huge chunk of money that goes out to pay for long term and nursing home care for Medicaid takes a big, big bite out of a local government budget. The state has do something to relieve that. The other thing we all have to do is get out and get counted in this Census, so New York gets its fair share, which we lost last time.
How are you involved in the Census?
We're everywhere with it. We have buttons, we are doing meetings all over the place. The other members of the labor community are doing the same thing. Community groups are doing the same thing. Sixty-nine percent of us got counted last time, which meant a huge, huge loss in federal dollars to New York and we can't let it happen again. Every New Yorker has to be counted.
Any concern the effect of the Medicaid Redesign Team could have on your members?
Yes, because Medicaid dollars pay for the salaries and benefits of our workers in the long-term care facilities, the OMRDD facilities, the mental health facilities, our hospitals. We have a great concern. So, hopefully the governor can get a solution to this problem. I don't know if he's going to get any help from Washington, but we hope he does. We're going to try to help him get that.