June 19, 2017
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – —Kim Medina, narrowly elected executive director of District Council 1707 AFSCME last month, has ambitious plans for the group of six human-services unions.
“I hope that under my leadership and that of the new officers of this Council that we will be a lot more progressive, and in some areas, more aggressive,” she says, speaking with LaborPress in the union’s West 45th Street offices. “We cannot brand ourselves as the human-services council if we’re not doing the work that we need to do in the community and also as a union. The civil-rights movement came out of labor. We have to be prepared to do the same thing over again here. We’re ready to do it.”
Medina, the daughter of a Carpenters union shop steward and the granddaughter of a postal-workers organizer, joined DC 1707 30 years ago, when she began working with mentally disabled children. She was reluctant to get involved at first.
“I didn’t want to be in a meeting,” she explains. “At 21 you don’t want to be a part of that, I was militant and young, and didn’t know that’s where the union could give you all the help you need, with your ideas.” She became head of Local 253’s election committee and rose through several other positions before being elected the local’s president in 1996, holding the post for more than 20 years. She also served as DC 1707’s president, its second-ranking position, from 2004 to 2013.
The council’s roughly 20,000 members include workers at more than 300 day-care centers and almost 200 Head Start programs; home-care, social-service, and special-needs program workers; and workers at philanthropic organizations. “We deal with populations that many don’t want to see or want to forget about,” Medina says. “We’re the pioneers in this area, in human services. Other unions who go to organize not-for-profits model themselves after us, and how we’ve done it at 1707.”
Two main problems facing the union, she says, are apathy among members and a hostile climate in government. Donald Trump “does not respect what we do,” she says. “That’s clear. You saw it in his campaign, when he made fun of people with disabilities.” Most of the programs the members work for rely on government funding. When that’s frozen or reduced, as has happened regularly over the past 15 years, it’s hard to win raises or prevent health benefits from being chiseled down—so “our members feel forgotten, and they feel that their union is weak.”
DC 1707’s members are more than three-fourths women, most with children. Their median income is $21,000 to $30,000 a year. That, Medina says, is one reason why one of her first moves as director was to cut her salary by half, from $180,000 to $90,000.
“$180,000 on the backs of members who make $21,000 to $30,000 a year is, to me, not a good thing,” she explains. “I feel that if you’re far removed from the membership, you don’t understand their pains and their concerns.” As organizers and staff start at $32,000, she adds, the money could be better used to hire more staffers and give current workers raises and training.
Another priority is for the union to be more transparent and more “visible to the membership.” “For me to stay in here every day is crazy,” she says, talking about her visit to a day-care center the day before, where she asked workers about their health benefits. “You’ve got to stay on the ground. If you’re not grass-roots, you’re never going to know what they want and how do we balance it as a council. It’s important for the staff to be out there. It’s important for me to be out there.”
“We want to be involved in the community and in their lives,” she continues. “They need to know that the union is there to support them and give them other things for their families and other outlets besides just for them to file a grievance and get a paycheck.”
This ranges from offering guitar lessons to members’ children to help with immigration problems. Many DC 1707 members are immigrants, from countries including Russia, Jamaica, Guyana, and Bangladesh, and a lot “are terrified with Trump in office that they may be sent back,” Medina says. Others need help bringing family members over. With the union providing a pro bono immigration lawyer, they don’t have to pay for anything but filing fees.
Wednesdays are now “hump day,” when the staff stays until 7:30 p.m. “Most of our members get off at 5 o’clock, or at 6 o’clock, and they need to be able to reach out to their union,” Medina says. The union’s also scheduled a meet-and-greet with its officials June 30, a conference with New York State Advocacy for Special Needs Aug. 9, and a health fair for members Sept. 23. It’s also planning to hold borough-wide meetings, so members don’t have to travel to Manhattan—and to have a “huge float” in the Labor Day parade.
“The reason we want the float at the Labor Day parade to be so huge is so that the members see us,” Medina says. “We’re visible. We’re real. They’ll know us. We want them to know that we appreciate them, and in turn, they’ll appreciate us. They’ll understand why people died for this movement and why people have a 35-hour workweek. That’s what’s going on here at 1707.”