On the December morning last year when probation assistant Michele Hilliard was about to learn who’d be laid off from her department, she decided to dress up for the occasion even though she’d worked 22 years for Nassau County and had been assured by her colleagues that she’d probably be “safe.” She’s not a superstitious person, but when she put on her gold cross, the necklace broke. It marked the beginning of a very difficult day.
In her job she routinely handled 100 cases, contacting victims who’d been robbed or abused, for example, and compiled reports for restitution before a judge could sentence the defendants.
“It’s constantly busy—there’s never a dull moment,” she says. “I really liked my job—it could be tedious and stressful—but at the end of the day I felt like I really helped someone.”
Working in criminal justice meant the world to Hilliard, who lives in Hempstead. A member of the Civil Service Employees Association Nassau Local 830, she’d been in the probation department for eight years, and before that she was in the county clerk’s office. But there’d been a three-year break when, at age 40, she’d taken a voluntary separation incentive offered by the previous Republican county executive with a huge budget gap to fill, Tom Gulotta. The money Hilliard got amounted to about $8,000, which in retrospect could never compensate for what she lost: her seniority. This time around, County Executive Ed Mangano’s administration wanted to cut 31 probation positions. Hilliard’s name was on the list. Now probation officers are doing the paperwork formerly handled by assistants like her.
“I guess I was in shock,” Hilliard says, recalling that moment when her working life changed. “I started taking everything down from my cubby. My friends came up to me and asked what was I doing, and I said, ‘I’m leaving.’ Then all of a sudden everybody was surrounding me. People were crying. I never cried.”
Hilliard, whose mother is a reverend and stepfather a pastor, is a very forgiving person, and doesn’t harbor any ill will that she was let go.
“I could understand why they had to do it,” Hilliard says calmly. “People were saying the county is behind the eight ball—they don’t have enough funds. I could understand that. But the only thing I don’t understand is why touch the little people? Like I wasn’t even making $50,000 a year. So why touch me?”
Hilliard isn’t alone in her concerns. When Mangano took office in 2010, Nassau was facing a budget hole of more than $400 million. Since then, he and the Republican majority on the legislature have reduced the county’s workforce by 20 percent, and shrunk the deficit so it’s now about $45 million. In the meantime, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, which had come into being back when Gulotta was county executive, has since taken on the full fiscal role of a control board, with the power to approve what Mangano must do to balance the books. Once NIFA took over, the CSEA’s no-layoff clause in their contract became null and void.
Around the country, historically powerful labor unions—from teachers to cops to machinists and airline pilots—have come under assault, primarily by lawmakers of the Republican persuasion. Beginning with Gov. Scott Walker’s successful effort in Wisconsin to toss out union contracts, it’s a trend that labor leaders and union members tell the Press is only getting more and more vicious.
Earlier this week, Long Island took center stage in this battle, when U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Spatt issued a preliminary injunction preventing Mangano from borrowing a page from Walker’s playbook.
From Judge Spatt’s bench at the alabaster edifice known as the Alfonse M. D’Amato U.S. Courthouse in Central Islip, he weighed in that “the mere passage of this law renders the collective bargaining agreements essentially meaningless and makes the contracts less binding, or not binding at all, on the county. The likelihood of success on this constitutional deprivation is so great that irreparable harm is inevitably shown.”
Labor leaders who had sued to block the law cheered the ruling.
“Today’s ruling in federal court shows once and for all that the United States Constitution can not be trampled on by state and local governments,” Jerry Laricchiuta, president of CSEA Local 830, said in a statement. “Clearly the federal courts agree that the Constitution of this great country does protect all contracts including labor agreements. We believe this ruling is favorable not just for CSEA but for all labor unions.”
Yet even with Spatt’s roadblock ruling, sharp-tongued union bosses such as Laricchiuta know that the assault is far from over—as Nassau County officials strategize and regroup.
So, with Labor Day weekend fast approaching, the longstanding day of union marching (and barbecuing) comes with this somber assessment: The holiday ain’t what it used to be.