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Aug 18, 2015 5:04 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Westhampton Free Library Employees To Vote Friday On Unionization

The employees of the Westhampton Free Library will vote Friday on whether they want to form a union. KYLE CAMPBELL
Aug 19, 2015 12:31 PM

Some employees of the Westhampton Free Library are attempting to unionize in order to have a greater say in policy decisions, while also hoping to improve job security.

The Westhampton Beach facility’s roughly 40 employees, most of whom are part-timers, will cast their votes this Friday, August 21, and decide if they want to form a local chapter of the New York State United Teachers, or NYSUT, that would represent them in collective bargaining.

Susan Berdinka, a 10-year employee of the library who was selected by roughly 30 of her coworkers to speak on their behalf, said unionization has been a topic of conversation among her coworkers throughout her tenure.

“We want equal voice and due process, which we have not ever had,” Ms. Berdinka said, adding that the library’s Board of Trustees now makes all policy decisions, including the hiring and firing of employees. “We would be on an equal playing field. The board would have to talk to us if we had a union.”

Ms. Berdinka, who lives in Speonk, stressed that she is not the leader of the push to unionize—the group has no official leader, she said—but that she was selected by her coworkers to explain their position.

The push for unionization comes just weeks after a library employee was fired for what she claims were arbitrary and politically motivated reasons. Sabina Trager of Westhampton Beach, who worked part-time for the library for three and a half years—first as a clerk and then as an administrative assistant—was let go on June 23 for breaching the library’s confidentiality policy, according to officials.

Ms. Trager, who worked in the library’s business department, said the official reason for her termination was that she discussed salary increases with fellow employees. However, she insists that she was fired after declining to sign a petition for the two Westhampton Beach Village Board candidates backed by longtime Library Board President Joan Levan.

On a Sunday in April, Ms. Trager said, she was approached by then-Village Trustee Patricia DiBenedetto and asked to sign a petition to get her and her running mate, fellow incumbent Hank Tucker, on the June ballot. Ms. Trager said she signed the petition.

The next day, Ms. Trager said she was approached on the street by Ms. Levan, a former village trustee herself, and asked to sign a similar petition for the challengers, Brian Tymann and Rob Rubio. Ms. Trager refused—at which point she said she first began to fear for her job.

“I immediately called my husband and said Joan is going to fire me,” she said.

On June 23, four days after Mr. Tymann and Mr. Rubio won election, Ms. Trager said, she was terminated. “I was fired a week later for ‘breaching contract,’” she said.

Ms. Levan this week dismissed the claims, describing Ms. Trager’s account of events as ridiculous and pointing out that she was an at-will employee who clearly violated library policy. She also wrote off Ms. Trager’s allegations as a work of fiction conjured by a disgruntled former employee.

“This is bullshit,” Ms. Levan said. “She brings that stuff up, but it means nothing to me. I can tell you another 30 people signing petitions who were not fired.

“I don’t care who she voted for,” she continued. “If she wants to sign a petition, she can go right ahead.”

On June 20, a day after the village election, Ms. Trager said she distributed private memos to each employee, explaining how much their individual salaries would be increasing at the start of the new fiscal year, which began on July 1. She also said that, at the request of two fellow workers, she informed them that their salaries would be increasing between 2 percent and 3 percent. Ms. Trager insists, however, that she did not discuss the salary of any specific employee with another worker.

Three days later, Ms. Trager said she was fired by Ms. Levan, Library Board Vice President Karen Andrews and Treasurer June Sellin. Rounding out the six-member board are Westhampton Beach Mayor Maria Moore, Secretary Jennifer Mendelson and member Marth-Ann Betjemann.

Ms. Moore stepped down from her volunteer post on Monday night, explaining that her resignation had nothing to do with Friday’s vote or Ms. Trager’s allegations. Rather, she said the board is supposed to have only five members and that she stayed to provide guidance to Ms. Betjemann, who came aboard earlier this year.

Ms. Trager insists that the information she shared was not a breach of confidentiality, arguing that the salaries of all library employees are public record. She also noted that she has an exemplary record, though she acknowledges she was verbally warned once for sharing statements made by Library Director Danielle Waskiewicz about other employees during a staff holiday party in January.

“They fired me, at-will, with no paperwork, no documentation,” Ms. Trager said. “They said there was no discussion, which I feel is very unprofessional. That wouldn’t happen if we had a union.”

Though she declined to offer details, noting that Ms. Trager’s firing was a personnel issue, Ms. Levan said the six-member board had all of the necessary documentation and probable cause to terminate her. She again insisted that the former employee is simply seeking retribution by going public with her allegations.

“I’m not answering these questions—I think this is a joke,” Ms. Levan said. “When you have an ax to grind, instead of trying to get a newspaper to do it for you, be a big girl and write a column.”

Ms. Berdinka said she didn’t know enough about the situation to say whether Ms. Trager breached policy, but noted that she would have preferred if there had been some sort of “paper trail” to support such a termination.

“If someone had exemplary reviews, which she did, they should not be fired at the drop of a hat,” Ms. Berdinka said. “That leads to an environment of fear, and that’s what we’re under.”

She declined to share any other specific instances where employees think the board acted inappropriately. Rather, she pointed out that workers currently have no say in what happens at the Library Avenue facility.

Trudy Rudnick, an organizer for NYSUT who has been working with Westhampton Free Library employees since early July, said it is common for libraries to have unions, noting that her organization has chapters at 50 libraries across Long Island. She argued that it is important for employees to have a union because it will provide a set of checks and balances among board members at the Westhampton Free Library who, unlike most library boards, are appointed internally rather than elected by the public.

“The main issue is, [the employees] don’t have any voice as to what happens at the library,” Ms. Rudnick said. “They are told what will happen to them, and they have no ability to sit down and discuss this with the administration.

“The board,” she continued, “which is not elected and has mostly closed-door meetings, is not respectful of them.”

Ms. Levan disputed that claim, saying that she is on a first-name basis with all the employees and knows many of their families as well. “We have a board at the library who does a damn good job,” she said. “I won’t tolerate this kind of a conversation.”

Regardless, Ms. Levan said she and her fellow board members will support whatever decision library employees make on Friday—a position echoed by Ms. Waskiewicz. “The board and I understand and recognize that the staff is going to make the choice that is best for them, and we support that choice,” she wrote in an email on Tuesday.

Employees will be able to cast secret ballots throughout the day Friday. A simple majority approval is required for the Westhampton Library Staff Association, as the members are calling themselves, to become part of NYSUT.

Approximately $1.5 million of the library’s $2.8 million budget for 2015 is for employee salaries and benefits.

After learning that their employees intended to hold a union vote, library board members circulated literature that their attorney, Richard Zuckerman, said was intended to serve as a fact-checking sheet on union selling points. But Ms. Rudnick charged that the paperwork was intended to confuse workers and possibly dissuade them from supporting the movement.

Though Mr. Zuckerman said the literature was not intended to discourage workers from voting yes, the language of the documentation suggests otherwise.

For example, one excerpt of the fact-checking sheet given to employees reads: “We do not think a union is necessary or beneficial to both our and your best interests. It is possible that the union’s demands, if fulfilled, would result in a prohibitive cost increase to the library, which may result in fewer jobs in order to pay for those demands.”

If Friday’s measure passes, a union can be formed immediately, according to Ms. Rudnick. She noted, however, that it generally takes at least a year or two for the union and library to negotiate a contract.

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This John Levan sounds very unprofessional, maybe he should step down. And why was the mayor on the library board ?? isnt that a conflict of interest! she should have stepped down sooner. it is very unamerican to have a board that chooses each other instead of being elected. this is why i am a libertarian, i dont want my tax dollars going to this "cool kids club"
By concerned_citizen (1), Westhampton on Aug 19, 15 9:54 AM
Correct. Very classy that Joan Levan with her language. Lets hear Joan Levan name the 30 Adult WHB Residents who signed the Tucker DiBenedetto petition who work in the Library. Actually isn't it in violation of the Library Charter for her to even discuss or promote this? Now I can see why the employees in that Library are so fearful of her. I also hear there are a couple of civil rights violations against the Board and Levan. No wonder Moore is running for the hills.
By realistic (472), westhampton on Aug 19, 15 12:13 PM
One More Comment. I hope all the employees vote the union in This is the only way you can protect yourself against the Board and Joan Levan. GO UNION! And the community should PUSH the Board for elections and not the whims of Joan Levan and who she wants to appoint. The community should also ask Levan and the Board why they keep pushing for tax increases each year when they have close to $5 million in cash reserves in the bank? Check the Library website and view the financials. Its all there.
By realistic (472), westhampton on Aug 19, 15 12:18 PM
1 member liked this comment
Joan is at her best again. What a nasty woman. It's time for her to go.
By beachbme11978 (78), Westhampton Beach on Aug 19, 15 1:07 PM
The best part of the library for me are the people who work there: Terry, Keith, Nola, Rachel, Carole, Jocelyn, Bob, Kathy, Doreen, Jan, Melissa, Jay, Sabina…and others whose names aren't coming to mind at the moment. These people are kind, knowledgeable, and pleasant to be around, and shouldn't have to tiptoe around Joan Levan and her four friends–all Caucasian females between the ages of 55 and 75, who can fire them on a moment's notice. These women have the power to do whatever they ...more
By xaw (3), Remsenburg on Aug 19, 15 9:49 PM
2 members liked this comment
here we go-another law suit
By westhamptonboy (227), Westhampton on Aug 19, 15 11:29 PM
Westhamptonboy- no lawsuits from the Trager camp. Not our goal. We only want to see the hardworking staff of the Library gain protection from what we consider an abusive board. The staff deserves union protection. They make and keep the Library an asset to the community. I hope everyone on the staff votes YES to the union.
Aug 20, 15 10:40 AM appended by BobTrager
Westhampton Boy- Our goal is to see the hardworking staff of the Library gain protection from what we consider a hostile and abusive Board. The Staff Deserves protection. They make and keep the Library an asset to the community. I hope everyone on the staff realizes the valuable benefit the Union will bring to their positions and Vote YES to unionize. Our goal is also to see an elected Board. There are many other individuals in the community who can bring valuable expertise to the Library and don't have the opportunity now. We as a community are taxed to support so we deserve voting rights on its operation.
By BobTrager (2), Westhampton Beach on Aug 20, 15 10:40 AM
If it weren't for the trustees at hand (and some retired ones) and the current director, we'd still be sitting on captains chairs while using computers surrounded by hundreds of old books, with the windows open. I think union representation is another required "growing pain" of our successful library. Who cares about courseness? Everyone has done a super job with this iteration of the library, despite alot of old school roadblocks (and captains chairs). Continuous improvement yay!
By tired and broken (6), remsenburg on Aug 20, 15 8:48 AM
It's a shame that Sabina Trager has latched on to the staff's right to unionize to further her own vendetta against the board. Her personnel file remains confidential, as it should be, leaving her a forum to spout lies with no repurcusions .She has a long history of abusive and erratic behavior in the Village, in particular with the school system in WHB..
It is important to note that the staff and director, with the support of the Board, have accomplished a venue that has set high standards ...more
By 313758 (8), westhampton on Aug 20, 15 9:35 AM
My name is Bob Trager. I am Sabina's husband. I - we- don't hide behind screen names as you can see but you appear to. We have requested a copy of the personal file from the Library and were advised by there attorneys they would not release it. I would be more than happy to provide that correspondence to anyone who has doubts. If you are going to make statement about abusive or erratic behavior back them up. Ill meet with you to discuss. No vendetta. Just speaking the truth with back up unlike ...more
By BobTrager (2), Westhampton Beach on Aug 20, 15 10:32 AM
2 members liked this comment
My (limited) understanding of the types of libraries in New York State, for there to be an elected Board of Trustees -- a solid idea -- the WFL would have to change its entire charter, and I'd wager that they would never agree to that.

I don't know any of the players involved, much less Mr. Trager or his wife (who does sound a bit on the whiny side), but 313758 comes across like one of Ms. Levan's lackies.
By Frank Wheeler (1824), Northampton on Aug 20, 15 2:07 PM
Regarding 313758, there are always going to be people who support "the other side". Could it possibly be Joan Levan herself??? The viscousness with which the post is written matches her viscousness in the article, choosing to attack Sabina Trager rather than calmly, coolly, and collectedly explaining what happened from the board's perspective. This is what people want to know!
By xaw (3), Remsenburg on Aug 20, 15 4:57 PM
When someone (JL) verbally attacks someone without having facts to back it up, my gut instinct is to wonder why the attacker is so unhappy. Does she feel guilty? Is she sad? Lonely? Fearful? Maybe she just needs a friend or a hug or forgiveness or assurance that the union could be a good thing even for her.
By xaw (3), Remsenburg on Aug 20, 15 5:07 PM