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CSEA president says organized labor at a crossroads as he retires

CSEA president says organized labor at a crossroads as he retires

N.Y. public sector unions strong but movement faces continuing challenges, Donohue says
CSEA president says organized labor at a crossroads as he retires
CSEA President Danny Donohue
Photographer: Photo provided

ALBANY — Longtime CSEA President Danny Donohue said he will be stepping down from his leadership role at a time when organized labor is needed as much as ever but is weakened by long-term trends.

The Civil Service Employees Association is strong, and the labor climate in New York is the strongest in the nation, he said. But too many young workers see jobs as a short-term proposition and haven’t embraced the idea of coming together for the long-term benefit of themselves and their co-workers.

Meanwhile, he added, “Politicians don’t see a need to come together as a nation, even, let alone a workforce.”

Donohue on Thursday told the nearly 300,000 members of the CSEA he won’t seek re-election as president after a quarter-century in the office. His term runs until March 2020; he hasn’t decided whether he’ll serve until the February election or leave sooner, which would make Executive Vice President Mary Sullivan the acting president through February.

The longtime Clifton Park resident told The Daily Gazette on Friday that he’ll remain active in labor, but hopefully at a slower tempo.

“I think I want to still stay in and help if I can,” said Donohue, who is 75. “Running all over the country and the state, you get a little tired.”

Also, he said, a union is “a living, breathing entity,” and needs new blood every so often.

“I’d like to say thank you — thank you to those hundreds of thousands of members who voted for me over those years, and those who disagreed with me, because that makes a stronger union. If it's done respectfully.”

That disagreement is a sign of engagement, he said, which is something unions need.

The Brooklyn native moved to Long Island as an adult and went to work at a state-run psychiatric hospital there. He won his first leadership role there as the local president in 1975, then was elected Long Island regional president, then statewide executive vice president. In 1994, he was elected the union’s 23rd president.

During his 45 years in office, labor unions in New York’s public sector have maintained their strength and influence even as unions in the private sector and in other states have declined.

Union membership shriveled from 20.1% of the U.S. workforce in 1983 to just 10.5% in 2018, federal statistics show. But New York’s workforce was still 22.3 percent unionized in 2018, second only to Hawaii's.

“I see it as a crossroads,” Donohue said.

Some dismiss the need for collective bargaining, saying people should just “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” he said. “That basically implies you have boots to begin with.”

Others blame public sector unions as a cause of high taxes. CSEA members aren’t getting rich, they’re getting a living wage while working and a pension when they retire, Donohue said. But nevertheless, “there’s never been a question, we get demonized.” 

Rather than trying to reduce public sector employees’ benefits to private sector levels, the push should be to raise private sector working standards, he said.

That said, with a few local exceptions, local, school and state taxes are high across New York, and the state as a whole has one of the heaviest tax burdens in the nation. Labor costs are among the biggest expenditures by the thousands of tax-levying entities that draw up a budget each year.

For that money, Donohue said, his membership provides essential services for daily life, from plowing snow to child care.

“It's the one workforce you don’t notice until it’s not there,” he said.

A recent blow to CSEA and other public sector unions came with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus vs. AFSCME, which allowed non-union public employees to stop paying dues to the unions that negotiate terms of their employment.

“We lost about 10,000 members of our union when Janus came down,” Donohue said. “Within about six months, we were able to bring in 14,000 new members.”

The Janus case had been expected to go against the unions in a conservative-dominated court, so CSEA began preparing for the outcome before it was announced, with a door-to-door campaign by union officials talking to members in their homes. 

To date, Donohue said, it has reached 85,000 members. It will continue as long as he’s president, he said, and hopefully under the next president.

“It’s a re-commitment to what unions should have been doing the last 50 years — talking and listening to members.”

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