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Long IslandPoliticsSpin Cycle

Suspense builds on LI in second PEF vote

Thousands of Long Island families have a personal financial stake in the second contract vote this season, now under way, for members of the Public Employees Federation.

Connie Batts of Bellport knows this better than anyone. She has held the elected post of PEF's Long Island regional coordinator since January, when she succeeded veteran leader Doris Dodson. As it happens, she took the reins in time to play a role in dealing with one of the most dramatic turns in PEF's 34-year history.

The PEF region -- one of 12 statewide -- represents 4,400 professional employees of the state's agencies for transportation, motor vehicles, people with developmental disabilities, taxation and finance, and the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, Stony Brook University and other offices and facilities.

As a member of the union's executive board, Batts advises a "yes" vote. "The goal is to preserve jobs for members and services to the citizens of the state of New York," she said this week.

The first contract attempt famously ran aground. On Sept. 26, it was announced that the union's members declined by 54 percent to 46 percent to ratify a five-year contract including health-care and furlough concessions and several years of across-the-board wage freezes.

Adding to the jolt of the rejection was that the larger Civil Service Employees Association had already voted to accept a similar pact.

PEF's defiant surprise left Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his administration scrambling -- and committed to following through on its vow to eliminate some 3,500 PEF jobs, to compensate for the savings it sought from concessions including across-the-board wage freezes over 3 years.

State Operations director Howard Glaser then blasted "a failure by PEF's leadership to effectively communicate the benefits of the contract to its members as CSEA's leadership did."

In the first ratification round, Batts underlined the need to avert firings.

"I met with a couple that are both state employees that are going to lose their homes," she told a television reporter at the time -- adding she did not think Cuomo was bluffing about layoffs.

The state issued lists of job titles that would be eliminated. But behind the scenes, in fairly rapid fashion, the state and the union, under its president Ken Brynien, who hails from Massapequa Park, negotiated revisions to the rejected contract. That stopped the clock on the job cuts.

Under the new deal, the contract's span was trimmed from five to four years. Nine days of forced employee furloughs, rather than four, would be repaid by the end of the contract. In exchange, the union forgoes certain bonus payments. Some changes in the deal were also made related to health premiums.

The administration calls this a reshuffling of the pact, not an enrichment, that is supposed to better tailor its terms to PEF yet save taxpayers as much as the previous version. One official who declined to be identified said "we can't say how the vote will come out."

Because the layoff process had already begun in the wake of the first rejection, most PEF employees know by now if they'd be in the 4 or 5 percent of the membership who stand to be jettisoned.

Ballots were mailed out this week under supervision of the American Arbitration Association.

Batts said she, too, can't be certain how the statewide vote will go but added that this version of the contract marks an improvement and "takes some of the sting out of it."

The next suspenseful ballot count is set for Nov. 3 -- to be followed by job cuts the next day if another "No" answer comes back.

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