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The Fight Over Control of NYC’s Lifeguard Union Reaches NY’s Highest Court

Another season of closed beaches and limited pool hours looms as union infighting continues in the state's highest court.

(Hell Gate)

For the past four years, the City has suffered a dire lifeguard shortage, even as nearby state, federal, and county beaches and pools remain fully staffed. Parks Department officials have said that efforts to close the lifeguard gap have been stymied by longstanding issues with the city's lifeguard union, echoing complaints from reform-minded lifeguards over what they describe as the anti-democratic and antagonistic leadership of DC 37's Local 461, the lifeguard union that has a stranglehold on training, certification, and beach assignments for the more than 1,000 lifeguards that patrol City-run beaches and pools every summer. Just one recent example of union intransigence: Last summer, according to the New York Times, union leadership gave prospective lifeguards a tough time during testing as retribution for the Parks Department trying to simplify the lifeguard test

Some rank-and-file lifeguards have tried to dislodge Local 461's ruling faction, including longtime union boss Peter Stein (technically the head of Local 508, which represents lifeguard supervisors), which has effectively run the local for over forty years, but they've hit multiple roadblocks, including a complete inability to communicate with leadership, as well as leaders disregarding suggestions for better safety training. But lifeguards have continued to try to push for a more democratic union—and last Thursday, a 2021 lawsuit filed by a lifeguard against the union, charging the union with holding an unfair and undemocratic election, made its way to the highest court in New York state.  

The lawsuit was kickstarted in 2021, when leadership switched union elections from June (when the ranks of lifeguards swells to around 1,200 lifeguards on a good year) to February, when only around 25 full-time pool lifeguards are eligible to vote, as the seasonal lifeguards have their union membership lapse in the off-season. 

Despite the election shift making the prospect of toppling the union's leadership nearly impossible, that didn't stop a group of reform-minded lifeguards, led by Edwin Agramonte, a year-round lifeguard, from running in the the elections in February 2021, alongside a slate of seasonal lifeguards. But union leadership kicked off the rest of Agramonte's slate, claiming they were not union members in good standing. (They hadn't paid dues since their last paychecks, which they received the previous December, so the union was right.) Agramonte then lost the vote, 22 to zero. 

After appeals to both DC 37 and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the parent of DC 37, failed, Agramonte sued his own union, alleging that the February vote, held when the vast majority of union members don't qualify to vote, constituted an undemocratic election. He also argued that there's virtually no democratic recourse for anything the union's leadership does. "[Stein] has been in power for 40 years and nothing has been done to him," Agramonte told the Chief. "What else can I do but sue?"

His lawsuit has not found favor with the courts: Two lower courts have ruled against Agramonte, finding that he didn't have the right to sue his union in this instance. 

Can members of public-sector unions sue their own unions for a breach of their constitution? That's the question before the Court of Appeals—and if the court rules in his favor, Agramonte would be able to sue the union over its election rules, and possibly extend that right to all public-sector union members. 

On Thursday, Agramonte's lawyer, Arthur Schwartz, argued that basically this precedent allows union leadership to both disenfranchise members, and then leave them without any recourse. He gave the example that if the union leadership simply decided to not have an election, there would be no options for members. 

"They can decide not to have an election and [they] can't sue about it," Schwartz noted.

AFSCME's attorneys countered that Agramonte, and seasonal members, could have made a request to union leadership for a dues waiver, which would have allowed them to vote during the elections in February. (Deciding whether they'd be able to receive that waiver, of course, would be up to the union's leadership, and as Schwartz pointed out, union members have virtually no way to get in contact with union leadership—there are no listed phone numbers, emails, or any contact information for them.) 

At Thursday's hearing, the justices didn't really tip their hands either way on how they're likely to decide. But even if Agramonte's last-ditch appeal is successful, and he's eventually able to go ahead with a lawsuit trying to change union leadership's behavior, reforms to the City's lifeguard system are still a long way off. Another union election is scheduled for this month, with the vast majority of union members again unable to participate. 

DC 37 declined to comment for this story, citing the pending litigation. 

As for this summer on the beaches, the Parks Department told Hell Gate that 424 candidates have already passed the qualifying swim exam, compared to 375 at the same time last year. Testing began in early December last year, as opposed to late January, in an effort to get as many qualified applicants through the process as possible. These qualified candidates, of course, must still complete union-controlled training, training that often descends into anti-Parks Department lectures.

But not to worry if you find yourself in a perilous riptide along a City-managed beach this summer—the NYPD will have some drones to save you

A ruling from the Court of Appeals on Agramonte's case is expected sometime this spring. 

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