Carmen Charles remembers the first time she saw James Butler speak. “President Butler was the person that inspired me to become a trade unionist,” she said of the fiery leader of Local 420, the city hospital workers union, who has held the job since 1973. “I was invited to a rally–one of his famous rallies–and I heard him speak. And that day, I decided that this is what I wanted to do.”
Now Charles, a soft-spoken union official, is leading a small but growing revolt against the aging labor leader. Angered by a dues hike recently proposed by Butler, Charles and her supporters are putting together a slate of insurgents to challenge Butler and what they call his “henchmen” in the union’s upcoming election. About 80 of the union’s 7,500 members rallied against Butler last Thursday in front of the tall glass West Harlem building that houses the union headquarters.
“We’ve done the math. We have the highest dues of all the unions, and none of us make over $30,000, if that!” said Antonia Marte, the union’s chair at Gouverneur Diagnostic Center. The local’s members, whose jobs include sorting bloody hospital laundry and lifting and washing patients in the city ‘s public hospitals, say their wages range from the low twenties for surgery and supply assistants to $28,000 a year for nurse’s aides. At $754 a year, their dues are unreasonable, they say. (By contrast, a park supervisor earning $46,000 a year pays his union $780.) According to DC 37 officials, Local 420’s dues are among the highest of the 56 municipal unions’.
For this, union officials blame city policy. “The dues increase is necessary because there’s been a significant drop in the membership over the years because of cuts to HHC,” said union attorney William Sipser. Since the early 1980s, the city has reduced Butler’s membership from 13,000 to its current 7,500, despite the union chief’s famous rallies, which featured coffins, effigies and fierce orations. To make up the difference, Butler hiked annual union dues by $78 in 1995 and by $130 in 1997.
So when he proposed another $65 increase last week, right after city officials agreed to a long-awaited 9 percent retroactive pay raise, members revolted. “We waited so long for this package, this 9 percent,” said a man who asked not to be named. “Now, after the taxes and this increase, what is left?”
Allegations of fiscal mismanagement at the union, first reported in the civil service newspaper The Chief two weeks ago, have kicked around for years. But for many at the rally, the issue was personal: They were more concerned with Butler’s own salary, which they pegged at upwards of $250,000 a year. Sipser said he could not get that information by press time. “They’ re feeling like Butler is sitting at the top, on a pedestal, looking down at them,” said Charles, “and nobody’s hearing their cries.”