Tuesday, November 30, 2010

AFSCME and the Easton Ambassadors

Unions fought against "wage-slavery" and brought us the 8 hour work day and
 the 40 hour work week.Today they are often accused 
of breaking the budgets of our municipalities.

Posted by: Noel Jones

In Ed Sieger's Express-Times article about the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 447's recent appeal to Mayor Panto not to cut more union positions with the city, an interesting question came up, and that is the fate of the Easton Ambassadors--the nice people in the red shirts and caps that clean up the downtown area and help people find what they are looking for. As Christopher Baxter of The Morning Call points out in his article, the nonprofit that manages the Ambassadors--the Greater Easton Development Program (GEDP)--was only scheduled to be funded by the city for three years, and that term has expired.

Local 447, our nonuniform labor union, is upset because the proposed 2011 budget includes $255,000 in spending cuts through staff attrition, while the city is hoping enough employees

will retire to avoid furloughs and/or layoffs. Meanwhile, the Easton Ambassadors have been keeping our Downtown spic and span for a few years now, as the GEDP, a nonprofit that has been raising some funding on their own, while also applying for money from the city each year through annual Community Block Grant Development (CDBG) money filtered through the city from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Development (HUD). 

The mayor has been warning the GEDP for a couple of years now that they need to become more self-sufficient, as the city's cash-strapped budget will not be able to support the Ambassadors program indefinitely with CDBG money. The city did grant the GEDP another $175,000 in the projected 2012 budget (the city is required to project a two-year budget each year), but in this article, as a means of appeasing union concerns, the mayor makes reference to the possibility that the job that the Easton Ambassadors are doing could be done by Local 447 workers in the future.

I would like to readers' impressions and feedback on this, as it raises a lot of questions (and these are all disjointed questions with no particular agenda) like why isn't cleaning the downtown a city function in the first place? Most cities include it in their budget, don't they? How much would it cost taxpayers for union workers to clean up the downtown vs. the Ambassadors? If it is prohibitively more expensive to hire union workers, then is the union willing to negotiate? Why is the GEDP still leaning on city funding? Shouldn't they be applying for more outside grants to sustain themselves? What would save more money, hiring union employees, or sustaining the GEDP?

I welcome all thoughts on this. I see this as part of the ongoing general debate about the role of unions (and nonprofits) in our nation. On one hand, without citizens fighting to form unions to define humane working conditions and schedules, we might all be wage-slaves in sweatshops as in China or Mexico. On the other hand, when unions like, say, the teacher's union, insist on 5% raises each year while the taxpayers are taking pay cuts, getting laid off, and fighting not to lose their homes while not being able to afford health insurance--and while seniors on fixed incomes are literally chopping their medicine in half and making choices between medicine and food--it begins to make a good argument for union-busting. And then there is always the ongoing question of the roles that nonprofits play, and what percentage of funding goes to administrative expenses as opposed to services, especially when accepting taxpayer money to operate.

Isn't there a way that we can ensure human working conditions and schedules while keeping pay and benefits relative to the conditions of our economy? Shouldn't we be able to work that out together, without running ourselves into the ground?

In this specific case, I would like to know how much one Ambassador costs the GEDP in terms of wages and benefits vs. one AFSCME union employee. Does anyone know--or know where to find this information?


Amend said...

just as a point of clarity, the Ambassador Program was not funded by the city for the first three years. the initial budget was cobbled together from varying sources with the lion's share coming from Lafayette College, with thanks due to Gary Evens and Dr. Weiss.

Anonymous said...

Questions - What percentage of Ambassadors time is spent cleaning vs other activities? If there are other activities, what are they? What geographical area do the Ambassadors maintain?

noel jones said...

Amend--you mean not fully-funded, right? They have received CDBG funding through the city each year as I understand it.

Anon 11:06--i believe the Ambassadors cover from Larry Holmes drive up to 4th Street and out to Spring Garden, but if this is wrong, someone please correct me.

as for other activities aside from cleaning, i think it's just answering of questions from people looking for directions and other general info. i think the vast majority of their time is spent cleaning, and they answer questions while they are cleaning up the streets.

Anonymous said...

The reason I asked the question was cleaning can be either surface or deep, that is just picking up litter vs sweeping. I have seen ambassadors watering and weeding flower containers. I saw an ambassador steam cleaning a sidewalk. Do they do gum removal which is a problem? Do they do graffiti removal? The proposed BID showed an area from 6th to the river and I wondered if they were cleaning that area. Easton used to clean sidewalks, it was a union job. They had a vacuum sweeper and confined to four blocks. I also know that Easton argued with their union over the use of convicted labor with community service requirements and the use of prisoners-trustys. That help was free. I am not really sure if the city has exhausted all of its free help including the many residents who clean their entire block. I see that woman walking along the street with a bag picking up garbage. They should give her an award.

Anonymous said...

Sandra Levisay is in charge of the Ambassadors 610-330-9947. They are located in City Hall. Give her a call and she can answer your questions. I know they work all downtown up to 6th street. According to news about them on the web, in addition to weeding flower beds, shoveling snow, cleaning storm grates and collecting leaves, they've spotted seven sinkholes.

Amend said...

Noel, the amount the City contributes to the Ambassadors overall budget is minute compared to the total. i don't have the exact figures in front of me, but i would venture to guess that it sits between 10-15%. like i said, the lion share came from Lafayette College. that's not to say that the city hasn't contributed in part, but it by no means funded the program entirely.

tachitup said...

I think the total cost for the program is about $275,000 a year, for their equipment, uniforms, all insurance (their health, disability, unemployment, etc., as well as liability) and pay. A city worker's pay? $75,000 would seem to be a good guess of the average, includes health coverage, pension, etc. We could fund 3-4 employees; probably not as good a value as the Block by Block program, which is mostly part-timers.
The reason jobs like this get privatized is because union regulations make it more economical and give the city more control over whether to continue the program than doing it in-house would allow. Unions were a necessary thing, and still are in some industries, but some unions have collective bargained themselves almost out of existence.

Anonymous said...

We really need to understand what their specific job responsibilities are before we can assume that they can be replaced with several employees or more or less. Case in point. I live in their designated area. I see them, but not daily. I sweep my own walk daily plus pick up litter from neighbors. Last summer I decided to stop. Litter sat for longer than one day before it was picked up. I assume that the ambassadors target certain areas daily and get to others on a lesser schedule. But, that is an assumption. If that is the case I question the need for several city employees. Really, property owners have to take care of their own. This clean up is at best a supplemental to owners sweeping their own properties.

Dennis R. Lieb said...

My comments will not really clarify any of the questions being asked but I had a few observations.

I think the Ambasadors are assets to the business community for keeping the heavily traveled sidewalks and curbs of the downtown commercial core clean during business hours.

I've also seen the Ambassadors cleaning up in front of the apartment houses in the first block of Bushkill Street, around the corner from my office. I spoke to them as they did this and asked why they were taking responsibility for private residential property when the tenants and/or landlords were perfectly capable of doing that themselves.

They seemed good natured enough and of the opinion that since they were on the street anyway they might as well do it. I commend their work ethic (and I know Sandra personally...she used to live in my West Ward neighborhood) but I still think - and I made this point to them - that if they are serving multiple roles in the community then one of them should be as extra eyes of the code office.

The Bushkill Street apartments are poorly maintained income properties. Crap is all over the place constantly and the front door hangs open half the night as people wonder in and out in a daze. It's bad enough we can't hammer these lowlife owners for their disrespect of our city but at least the organizations we pay to maintain the streets should be given the mandate to make sure every infraction is noted and sent up the chain of command for action.

Like I said, the Anbassadors are great. And every available resource to make life miserable for the bums who wreck our town should be leveraged - the Ambassadors' "eyes on the street" included.