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Lifeguard local an island unto itself

Seasonal workers kept from meetings, elections


Thursday, October 5, 2023 5:51 pm

The Chief

A city lifeguard overlooks Midland Beach on Staten Island.  DANIEL AVILA/NYC DEPARTMENT OF PARKS & RECREATION

Members of District Council 37 Lifeguards Local 461 say the local isn't holding open elections or meetings that include the seasonal workforce even though their former president was ousted for depriving members of precisely those rights.

When Franklyn “Bubba” Paige, the longtime president of District Council 37’s Lifeguards Local 461, was removed by its national union in 2020 for disenfranchising his members, rank and file lifeguards were hopeful that the local would become more democratic and certainly more transparent than it had been for decades.

Paige was ousted by a panel from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees following hearings because he wouldn’t allow seasonal lifeguards, who make up the vast majority of the Local 461, to vote in union elections or attend union meetings.

Paige had “disenfranchised” his members and “deprived the seasonal Lifeguards of the basic rights of union membership,” AFSCME Judicial Panel Member Steve Tully wrote in his decision.

Omer Ozcan, one of the two lifeguards who brought charges against Paige, told The Chief after Paige’s removal in 2020 that he was hoping AFSCME would step in to conduct an “official and honest election.”

“I’m happy that Franklyn Paige has been removed,” Ozcan said then. “Now, we would like to get a fair election with a fair slate.”

But city lifeguards say that little has changed since Paige was ousted. To replace him, Local 461’s leadership held an election lasting one hour in the middle of the day in February 2021 that only year-round lifeguards could participate in. For decades, elections were typically in the summer.

And in the nearly three years since Paige was ousted, the local has not held public membership meetings that include its seasonal members, current and former lifeguards and members of Local 461 told The Chief last month.

“Pretty much everything is the same in the union,” said Ralph Sequeria, a former lifeguard who, along with Ozcan, brought the charges against Paige to AFSCME’s judicial board.

“There’s been no open meetings, and no open elections.” Under the new president, Alma Diamond, workers say, the union engages in the same practices as it has since at least 1996, Paige’s first year as president.

“In all my time as a lifeguard I’ve never got a letter about a meeting or a vote or anything else from Local 461,” a seasonal lifeguard who works at Rockaway Beach told The Chief.

“Nothing’s really changed.”

The lifeguard asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

There are more than 1,100 seasonal lifeguards who are members of Local 461 but work and pay union dues only during the summer. About 30 lifeguards work year-round, and it’s this smaller group that votes in Local 461’s elections and attends union meetings.

“Every other union in DC 37 that has seasonals, they let them vote in elections,” said Arthur Schwartz, a lawyer who represented Ozcan and Sequeira in their complaint against Paige and who has been counsel to DC 37 Local 983, a union with a partially seasonal workforce that votes in elections.

Open meetings and elections aren’t being held, Schwartz said, “even though the contract is binding on all 1,200 people who pay dues mostly in the summer.”

Another election for Local 461’s executive board is scheduled for February 2024. Schwartz fears that the union once again won’t allow its seasonal workforce to vote and will only allow its year-round members to run for top positions in the union.

Local 461 did not return a request for comment.

‘The most corrupt local in DC 37’

Janet Fash, a chief lifeguard who has advocated for greater democracy in both Local 461 and the chief lifeguard's union, DC 37’s Local 508, isn’t surprised by union leadership’s refusal to hold open elections. Both lifeguard locals are controlled by Peter Stein, the longtime president of Local 508, who has handpicked leadership in both unions, including both Paige and Diamond, for decades.

“Peter Stein put people in these positions that weren’t elected fairly,” Fash told The Chief. “Local 461 is still not inviting everyone to meetings and holding elections with the rank and file.”

Stein, who is 78, has headed Local 508 since 1981, ascending to the presidency after working for more than 20 years as a city lifeguard starting in 1960 when he was only 15 years old. Stein is also a vice president in DC 37 and sits on the union's executive board, a position that gives him outsized influence for his relatively small membership.

Schwartz said that DC 37 has done little to check Stein’s power or influence over the years.

"One of the worst parts of this is despite the fact that this is the most corrupt local in DC37, the district council and the international just look the other way, they don’t take action on it."

A spokesperson for DC 37 declined to comment.

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