A Teamsters union is picking a fight with an unlikely enemy — its own members.
In an extraordinary move, Teamsters Local 707 has sent delinquency collection notices to off-track-betting workers and other members it says are in arrears for union dues totaling hundreds or even thousands of dollars a pop.
The targeted members were on maternity leave, medical or disability leave or furlough during the coronavirus pandemic. While union dues are automatically deducted from worker paychecks, that is not the case when members are off the payroll.
If the members don’t cough up what is owed, Teamsters 707 warned that it will instruct the Nassau County OTB and other employers to double the union dues taken from the workers’ salaries until they’re paid up.
“Are [union officials] acting like a debt collector? I think it’s worse. It’s more like extortion,” said OTB cashier Rosie Schwab, an employee since 1998 who was told by the Teamsters that she owed $1,452.50.
Teamsters Local 707 Secretary Treasurer John Zirpoli wrote in a letter to the OTB workers, “A review of our records indicates you are delinquent in your dues payments to Teamsters Local 707.
“It is the members responsibility to continue to pay union dues when out on either compensation, disability, FMLA, LOA or furlough because you are still considered an active member member who will be returning to work without loss of seniority at some point in time, according to Article XVIII Section 6A of the International Constitution,” he said.
A letter to one worker said, “As of this date, the amount of union dues/fees owed to bring your account up to date is $1,545.50.
“This amount will pay you through the month of November, 2021. Please remit a check or money order payable to Local Union 707 to cover the back union dues/fees owed. If your dues/fees are not paid your employer will be instructed to deduct double dues/fees until your account becomes current.”
Schwab raged, “I don’t think anyone making the amount of money we make should have to pay this debt to the union.
“Absolutely not. It’s unthinkable,” she said.
Schwab spent time on workers’ compensation after getting injured in a fall.
Susan Oddo, an OTB branch manager in Valley Stream, LI, who has worked for OTB since 1997, pays about $80 a month in union dues. She got a letter that says she owes more than $800 to Teams Local 707.
“I’ve never heard of this before. The Teamsters leadership is trying to strong-arm members. Kevin McCaffrey is trying to strong arm us,” Oddo said, referring to the union president, who is also a Suffolk County legislator.
“It’s horrible what they’re trying to do to us. I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t think it’s right. It’s ridiculous.”
The aggressive debt comes a tough time for Teamsters 707. Its membership has plummeted 21 percent from 2,249 members in 2015 to 1,759 members last year, according to records filed with the US Labor Department.
Teamsters Local 707 represents freight drivers, ambulance drivers and Off Track Betting employees in New York City, Long Island and the Hudson Valley.
Local 707 is part of Teamsters Joint Council 16, which represents 120,000 workers in downstate New York and in Puerto Rico, including in the city Sanitation Department, NYCHA and public schools. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has 1.4 million members nationwide.
One labor expert said the move smacks of desperation — and could be illegal.
“Nassau OTB should not, under any circumstances, make anyone pay the Teamsters against their will. The First Amendment protects all public employees, including OTB workers, from being forced to pay a union,” said Ken Girardin, a research director at the Connecticut-based Yankee Institute.
“This is why government should never be acting as a union’s bag man.”
Even veteran union lawyer Arthur Schwartz said Teamsters 707’s aggressive delinquency goes too far.
“Is it smart? No. That’s extremely heavy-handed,” said Arthur Schwartz, a lawyer for Transport Workers Union Local 100 and other unions.
TWU Local 100 temporarily lost its right to automatic dues collection from transit workers they represent after going on an illegal strike in 2005. Only about half of its members were paying dues voluntarily at one point, he said. Non-paying members were barred from voting in elections.
Schwartz said the rate of dues-paying gradually jumped to 93 percent, as transit workers voluntarily agreed to catch up by increasing their dues collections after payroll deductions were restored.
Teamsters 707 President McCaffrey defended the notices sent to delinquent members.
“I don’t agree with the criticism. We’re just following the Teamsters International union constitution. We have an obligation to make an effort to collect from members who are in arrears,” McCaffrey said.
He also said it’s not fair for the overwhelming majority of union members who are current on dues payments to let delinquent members off the hook from paying up, when they keep seniority and benefits when they go off the payroll on disability, medical or family leave.
“There’s not a lot of sympathy from dues-paying members for those who don’t pay,” McCaffrey said.
He said the union is offering a compromise of having delinquent members on suspension pay $250 to “start from scratch” and rejoin the union and settle the debt.
“”It’s a fair compromise,” said McCaffrey, who urged delinquent members to call the union and settle up instead of complaining to the press.
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