Challenges and Controversies in the 2023 Westchester County and COBA Contract Negotiations

Date:

I want to address the recent information shared by AJ Woodson, Editor-In-Chief of Black Westchester, regarding the response from the County Executive Office to my article and video in light of the Westchester County Correction Officers Benevolent Association’s (COBA) claim that the county offered a two-year deal for 3 percent each year, which was later proven to be false.

Having dedicated 33 years to the department, with 13 years as a union delegate and involvement in two contract negotiation committees, one of which resulted in correction officers becoming the highest-paid in the county, under then COBA President Joseph K. Spano, who is now the Westchester County Department of Corrections Commissioner, the most recent developments in contract negotiations leave me disheartened.

Let me clarify my stance: I firmly believe in recognizing the hard work of correction officers by ensuring they receive fair compensation on par with county police, given that the county’s own report confirms correction officers are better trained in de-escalation and mental health supervision. In addition to Correction Officers being Nationally Accredited, and county police are not.

However, it is crucial not to overlook the missteps in the COBA union leadership that have led to inadequate pay and benefits for our dedicated correction officers today. Unfortunately, some individuals are attempting to rewrite the history of how we ended up in this challenging situation, which is detrimental to all officers, particularly the newer ones.

The primary responsibility of the union is to advocate for its members’ rights and benefits, including improving worker’s rights, better pay, safer working conditions, and enhanced benefits.

To effectively represent our officers, the union president and delegates must actively engage with the community by visiting houses of worship such as churches, synagogues, and mosques to inform congregations and the public about the essential hard work of Westchester Corrections Officers. It is also crucial for every delegate to establish strong relationships with local politicians, business owners, and various organizations across Westchester County rather than merely being on their cell phones within the building.

When was the last time COBA issued a press release concerning an officer being assaulted? Many in the public are still unaware of the ongoing challenges with COVID within the jail. How can the public gain insight into the risks faced by Correction Officers? This is precisely why the president is given five days outside the building, expenses budget, the board is granted union time for meetings and events, and all board members get salaries. Their role is to keep the public informed.

In the ’90s, we effectively implemented outreach initiatives under then-COBA President Joe Spano, who currently serves as the Commissioner. As a result, we became the highest-paid law enforcement department in the county in the mid-90s. Unfortunately, these proactive strategies have lost their momentum over the years. The challenge arises when senior officers with 20 years or more try to attempt to convey this history to younger officers, who often perceive COBA as if it only came into existence when they got the job.

So, it’s a matter of “Oh well, do as you please,” and we’re witnessing the consequences of that perspective unfolding.

The decline in our pay relative to County PD officers since 2000 and the less favorable contracts can, in part, be attributed to changes in union leadership and contract negotiations. It is essential to acknowledge the responsibility of the membership in voting for these unfavorable contract terms, including the two contracts negotiated by former President Alonzo West, which introduced healthcare contributions, lower wages, and a longer time frame to reach top pay. Recognizing that the membership approved these unfavorable contract terms is crucial.

What’s equally troubling is that the current President endorsed the former President’s contract, telling members it was a good deal, and it’s only now, with a majority of the union being post-2012 officers, that it’s now considered a bad idea and they have to fix it. News Flash: It was a bad idea when many current COBA members were on the board then. The only thing that has changed is how they narrate the situation.

From the county’s standpoint, COBA negotiated and willingly accepted these terms, whether you were present during former President Alonzo West’s contract negotiations or recently joined the department under current President Neil Pellone. It is important to grasp that the county is only obligated to fulfill what was agreed upon in those contracts. Any claims suggesting that the county owes correction officers better healthcare or other benefits are unfounded, as the union accepted these terms under former President Alonzo West.

In 2023, the union proposed a two-year contract with a 6 percent wage increase, as opposed to the more favorable four-year deal offering a 10 percent wage increase with no concessions or alterations, just a straightforward monetary adjustment. This choice does not seem economically prudent since COBA will only achieve the same outcome through arbitration.

What’s more concerning is the confusion surrounding the negotiation process. There have been issues with misinformation regarding who originally proposed the two-year deal, a lack of transparency about the four-year deal and retroactive pay, and an inclination to attribute blame to the county. In my 33 years of working for the county, this is the first time the county has publicly made a statement about contract negotiations with a union. These factors will lead to prolonged delays in reaching a resolution, which does not align with the mission statement of COBA.

Why is COBA organizing a rally now when past and current presidents were responsible for negotiating these unfavorable contracts? Is the rally an outcome of our president having negotiated a less-than-ideal deal that the county accepted, potentially turning this situation into a spectacle? It is worth noting that there is not a clear rationale for the rally, even though the improvements mentioned are warranted. However, it’s essential to remember that COBA leadership was ultimately responsible for negotiating these changes in the past, and the membership voted for them.

Additionally, it’s crucial to consider how taxpayers might react if the county were to disclose everyone’s salaries publicly. It’s possible that they may not view it favorably, especially when the average salary in Westchester is around 80K, and there are officers earning with overtime close to 200K. In the realm of public politics, perception plays a significant role, so be prepared for potential pushback.

Instead of placing all the blame on the county, COBA must take responsibility and reflect on the choices they’ve made regarding COBA’s leadership and negotiation strategies. To be clear, this isn’t about advocating for removing anyone in office. Rather, it’s about acknowledging that we cannot revise history and hold the county solely responsible for our current circumstances.

The county is only bound to honor what COBA has negotiated and what the membership has approved. Unfortunately, some of these decisions have put Correction Officers at a significant disadvantage in terms of compensation compared to police officers. It’s time for us to honestly assess our role in shaping our current situation and make the necessary changes. Failing to do so will only reinforce the perception that COBA members lack direction in the eyes of county-elected officials.

Lastly, for those wondering why I care, even though I’m retired, it’s because I dedicated 13 years as a delegate alongside others to secure rights and benefits for COBA members. I watched these hard-earned gains dissipate, and I just departed in August 2023, and I want my F&%$#@ING MONEY, I rightfully earned.

DAMON K JONES
DAMON K JONEShttps://damonkjones.com
A multifaceted personality, Damon is an activist, author, and the force behind Black Westchester Magazine, a notable Black-owned newspaper based in Westchester County, New York. With a wide array of expertise, he wears many hats, including that of a Spiritual Life Coach, Couples and Family Therapy Coach, and Holistic Health Practitioner. He is well-versed in Mental Health First Aid, Dietary and Nutritional Counseling, and has significant insights as a Vegan and Vegetarian Nutrition Life Coach. Not just limited to the world of holistic health and activism, Damon brings with him a rich 32-year experience as a Law Enforcement Practitioner and stands as the New York Representative of Blacks in Law Enforcement of America.

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