The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Oct. 19 removed the longtime president of District Council 37’s City Lifeguards Local 461 after determining that the union did not allow the seasonal Lifeguards who make up almost the entire membership to participate in elections.
AFSCME Judicial Panel Member Steve Tully found that Local 461 President Franklyn Paige, who has run the local since 1996, “deprived the seasonal Lifeguards of the basic rights of union membership” and “disenfranchised” them by not allowing them to attend membership meetings.
Failed to Notify Them
The local represents more than 1,000 Lifeguards who work across city beaches between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Longtime Lifeguards Omer Ozcan and Ralph Sequeira brought charges against Mr. Paige for failing to notify seasonal Lifeguards about union meetings and excluding them from elections.
“I’d been calling the union about holding union meetings and no one would get back to me,” Mr. Ozcan, who has worked at the Coney Island beach for 17 years, said during a phone interview. “I’d always heard about the selected few getting election notices. We don’t know who the vice-president is, who the Treasurer is, or who is on the board—nobody knows who is running this union.”
The hearings were originally scheduled for March 31, but were postponed because of the pandemic. During two virtual hearings held in August, eight Lifeguards—some of whom had been on the job for 30 years—stated that they had never attended or received notice of a general membership meeting for the local.
"It was time for us to do something about it," said Mr. Sequeira, who has been a Lifeguard for 22 years. "Why is it that we're paying dues but we're not part of elections or getting any promotions?"
Mr. Paige testified that he believed that only year-round Lifeguards could be members in good standing, and that seasonal employees could not be considered in good standing because they did not pay dues for 12 consecutive months. The local represents just 30 year-round Lifeguards.
“Brother Paige’s definition of a member in good standing is so extraordinarily narrow and restrictive that, under his standard, no seasonal Lifeguard can ever become a member in good standing of Local 461,” Mr. Tully wrote in his decision. “Seasonal Lifeguards should be regarded as members in good standing during their employment period.”
Veteran labor lawyer Arthur Schwartz, who represented Mr. Ozcan and Mr. Sequeira, said that other DC 37 locals including Local 983, which represents about 1,000 seasonal employees including Park workers and Road Repair Workers, have “always let the seasonals get election ballots and go to meetings, so this was a pretty unique situation.”
The seasonal Lifeguards also charged that Mr. Paige failed to conduct union meetings, which the local’s constitution states must be held at least three times a year. The local leader testified that because of personal and family reasons, for the past 18-to-24 months the union has not had any meetings.
Mr. Tully wrote that “although Brother Paige had valid reasons for not being able to hold membership meetings, there are other officers of Local 461 who could have and should have stood in for him and held the meetings.”
Mr. Paige, who has been a delegate on DC 37 executive board since last November, also works as a Chief Lifeguard part of the year, according to payroll data. Local 508 President Peter Stein, who has represented Chief Lifeguards since 1981, nominated Mr. Paige for the vacant delegate post meant for locals that have less than 5 percent of DC 37's total membership.
'Colluded With Management'
The seasonal Lifeguards brought an additional charge against Mr. Paige claiming that he “colluded with management” and was part of a group that controlled promotions.
Mr. Ozcan said that he became frustrated by the favoritism that has been rampant among Lifeguards for decades. He began investigating the union after he was passed over for a promotion to become a Lieutenant Lifeguard in favor of less-experienced employees who were more-closely connected with Mr. Stein and his allies.
Although the two were separate unions, “Local 461 is really run by Peter Stein,” Mr. Ozcan said.
One irony of the charges against Mr. Paige was that in January 1996, shortly before he became president of the local, it listed a 339-3 vote on a DC 37 wage contract that began with a two-year wage freeze. It was later determined that the DC 37 vote that ratified the deal had been rigged, primarily within its second largest-local, which represents clerical employees and 9/11 operators. While the ringleaders were prosecuted and convicted by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, an audit by Kroll Associates that was commissioned by AFSCME found that DC 37 membership records listed just 24 members for Local 461, and that it had apparently allowed agency-shop members—who paid the equivalent of dues but were barred from voting in union elections—to cast ballots.
Mr. Tully dismissed the collusion charge, noting that the dissidents did not provide specific examples that Mr. Paige had conspired with the Department of Parks and Recreation or had influenced promotions.
In addition to removing him as president, AFSCME’s judicial panel also suspended Mr. Paige’s right to hold or seek office at any level within the union for four years.
Lawyer: Penalty Excessive
Labor lawyer Richard Washington, who represented Mr. Paige, said in a statement that “we were disappointed in the final outcome of this case. The majority of allegations against him were dismissed, and there was legitimate explanation for his inability to hold meetings for a limited time. He acted in accordance with the Local 461 and AFSCME constitutions as he understood them. The proposed penalty is excessive under the circumstances, and we intend to appeal."
Mr. Paige was re-elected in June 2018 and his term was set to end next year. Mr. Schwartz and the seasonal Lifeguards have called on AFSCME to require the local to hold a new election.
“I find it utterly bizarre that they didn’t order a new election considering the evidence that the union did not elect the current body,” Mr. Schwartz said.
DC 37 declined to comment on the decision. AFSCME Judicial Panel Chair Richard Abelson said that the panel has "no role in the filling of the presidency of Local 461," and that the post would likely be filled according to the local’s constitution, which calls for the vice-president to step into the role.
Local 461’s vice-president seat is currently vacant, according to Mr. Sequeira.
Mr. Ozcan said he hoped that the international union would step in to allow for an “official and honest election.”
“I’m happy that Franklyn Paige has been removed,” he said. “Now, we would like to get a fair election with a fair slate.”
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