As 2015 comes to a close, we pause to take a look back at a year of legislative challenges and organizational victories, new leadership for the union and new political voices coming to the fore, and ultimately union members doing what they do best – coming together to improve working conditions for all.
For an organization that counts nearly 10,000 members in all corners of the state, this year in review is hardly meant to be comprehensive, but instead is meant to give a glimpse at what most impacted the organization in 2015.
Legislative session and Executive Branch contract
Coming into 2015, it was clear there would be challenges dealing with a potential return to power of former Speaker Bill O’Brien. For Executive Branch employees, this played out against the backdrop of contract negotiations.
When the new year opened, negotiations for SEA/SEIU Local 1984’s biggest unit were at impasse. After numerous mediation sessions, the hard work of the master bargaining team – and dozens of members who took part in the Contract Action Team – paid off when the sides reached a potential tentative agreement. In short order, the Bargaining Senate voted to send the TA to full membership, which approved it. But the contract saga was long from over.
Meanwhile in the Legislature, Rep. Bill O’Brien’s plans to return to power were being not-so-quietly scuttled. By the time the Republican House majority had met to pick its speaker, Hudson Rep. Shawn Jasper had gathered enough support to take the speaker post. O’Brien and his supporters were instead consigned to setting up shop in private office space across Main Street from the State House. With his authority diminishing, O’Brien announced mid-session that he would not seek re-election in 2016.
While O’Brien was denied a return to power, the climate for public employees had not improved much. Executive Branch bargaining wrapped up in time for Gov. Maggie Hassan to include the new contract in her budget proposal, but Republicans steadfastly refused to fund the contract. Members mobilized and took action, lobbying their lawmakers with phone calls, emails and helping pack the halls of the State House when the lower chamber met to vote on the budget. Gov. Hassan ultimately vetoed the budget, and included the lack of funding for the Executive Branch contract among her reasons. Members kept up the phone calls and emails to legislators, but also shared personal stories and showed their support for state employees by posting purple and yellow signs in their yards. All that work finally paid off when legislators came to a budget agreement in September that included funding for the contract.
One month later, Gov. Hassan joined the members of the SEA/SEIU Local 1984 bargaining team to sign the contract at the union’s annual convention.
Ultimately, the budget agreement left much to be desired, leading to some big issues that would eventually crop up in regards to state retirees’ health care, and funding for DHHS – most notably the Sununu Youth Services Center – and the DOT.
New chapters, faces on Board of Directors
2015 saw some significant additions of chapters, as well as growth of new chapters. Chapter 52, Strafford County Corrections, continued to grow, reaching nearly 90 percent membership after it split off from Chapter 65, Riverside Rest Home, late last year. Chapter 52 agreed to its first contract early this year, and recently reached agreement on a new deal. Employees from both units joined together in the fight to recoup funds refunded to the county from Health Trust. Employees are awaiting a decision from an independent arbitrator in that case.
Another county corrections unit returned to the fold at SEA/SEIU Local 1984 this year – Merrimack County. Corrections employees at Merrimack County House of Corrections opted this summer to leave their current union and rejoin the SEA as Chapter 18. SEA/SEIU Local 1984 now represents corrections workers in four counties — Merrimack, Coos, Strafford and Belknap.
Another new chapter was created when the faculty and staff at Nashua Community College split in two. This followed a change by all community college chapters, which split into faculty and staff for the purposes of bargaining. The staff recently ratified their first contract, while the faculty prepare to head into mediation for their first contract.
This summer, SEA/SEIU Local 1984 members who work at the state liquor stores came together to form their own chapter, Chapter 54. The members of Chapter 54 had previously been spread out among eight other chapters, depending on geography. The process of unifying under one chapter wasn’t quick, but the members feel in the long run it will be worth it, streamlining the process for dealing with issues unique to the the Liquor Commission’s retail store employees. Advocacy for part-time employees at the liquor stores continues, and as it does, the number of part-time members continues to grow. This year, the settlement that gave part-time employees contractual benefits had to be modified, and as a result more than 500 part-time workers are now receiving premium pay for working on Sundays and holidays.
The union’s Board of Directors gained several new faces in 2015. Early in the year, Kristen Marabella, of DHHS, was elected Secretary and Frank Wike-Clerk, of Hampstead Hospital, was elected to the private sector Director seat. Later in the year at Convention, Jeremy Dupuis, of DHHS, was elected to a state Director seat and Terry Locke, of Strafford County Corrections, was elected to the County and Municipal Director seat. Also at Convention, Wike-Clerk was re-elected, along with Germano Martins and John Hattan, of DHHS. Finally, at the December Council meeting, Avis Crane, of DOIT, was elected Treasurer and Wendy Parent, of Lakes Region Community College, was elected to the newly-created CCSNH Director seat.
ACA survives, Fight for $15 grows, Feel the Bern
On the national stage, SEA/SEIU Local 1984 members were energized by the growing Fight for $15 movement. After a large rally in Boston in April (similar, coordinated rallies were held around the country), members began working on sowing the seeds of the movement in NH. In addition to regular visibility events outside highly-trafficked fast food restaurants, members spent election day in Portsmouth gathering signatures in support of a $15 wage floor.
Another national story with big local implications involved the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Just three years after the landmark Supreme Court decision that upheld the health care reform law, the Supreme Court upheld a key element of the law — the subsidies that help make coverage purchased under the law more affordable. Thirty-seven-thousand Granite Staters get their health coverage from the ACA’s Marketplace, and a majority received financial assistance. The court’s decision ensured that, as SEA/SEIU Local 1984 President Rich Gulla said, “thousands of New Hampshire residents — including some of our own members — can go back to living with the freedom of not having to choose between paying for healthcare or paying for food.”
With the New Hampshire presidential primary fast approaching, the SEA/SEIU Local 1984’s Political Education Committee began discussing the endorsement process months ago. All members were polled, and key presidential contenders were invited in to meet with members. Ultimately, the union ended up supporting the winner of that membership poll – Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders has long fought for equal rights, reform on Wall Street and breaking down income inequality. Critically for many, he supports the Fight for $15’s call for a $15 wage floor.
Granite Staters are undoubtedly familiar with Sanders, due to his proximity, but his message and his record are what ultimately mattered most.
“Bernie Sanders has a long history of fighting for working people,” said Richard Gulla, President of SEA/SEIU Local 1984. “He shares many of our members’ goals and values.”
Strength in Numbers
In October, the SEA joined with SEIU locals around the country in launching a drive to increase membership. The name of the drive, Strength in Numbers, explains the reason for the drive: because there is truly strength in numbers. The more of us there are, the more power we have to effect positive change in our workplaces and our communities.
The key with Strength in Numbers was, and is, getting members to take responsibility and take the lead. With several months of the drive under our belt, members have done just that. Dozens of members have stepped up and recruited new members. Jonathan Hallet, of DHHS, came aboard to help with the drive full time while members like Ralph Mecheau, of the Liquor Commission, have led the charge in signing up new members.
Thieves can’t stop Operation Santa Claus
As the year closed out, so too did another successful campaign for Operation Santa Claus. But this year was not without its complications. Just a week before gifts were scheduled to be sent out to children around the state, thieves broke into the warehouse used to store the presents.
Once the news broke, the response from the community was swift and strong. Donations poured in, retailers helped replace some of what was stolen, and within days everything was back on track. Within days of the break-in, authorities had made two arrests.
For many involved with the program, the break-in was almost unfathomable. The response of the community, however, was unsurprising and also inspiring. Thanks to the work of volunteers and donors, Operation Santa Claus once again delivered on its promise to the children of New Hampshire.