By Mitchell Krugel
When State President Pat Colligan gathered the PBA leadership to discuss candidates for 2015 Local of the Year Award, he quickly realized there were so many worthy recipients.
“So many Locals do great things that we could have 10 of those awards each year,” Colligan continued. “That would be a great way to do it, like we give out gold, silver a bronze medals of valor. It’s so hard to pick one.”
Ultimately, there were several reasons that Union County Corrections Local 199 emerged as the 2015 Local of the Year.
The all-in bravery to stand up to Union County Freeholders trying to regionalize corrections operations and close the jail distinguished Local 199 as the type of cohesive unit needed to survive in today’s governmental landscape.
And the process Local 199 generated to convince the county that closing the jail would be more costly than keeping it open and less effective for law enforcement created a blueprint for ending such threats.
Union County Corrections longtime activism in PBA-driven actions and charitable endeavors also could have been additional evidence to distinguish the Local this year.
But at the end of the Valor Awards, State Delegate Joe Krech confirmed the asset that set Local 199 apart.
“Past State Delegate Kenneth Burkert,” Krech pledged. “It’s all Kenny’s work. We’re all just following in Kenny’s footsteps.”
Perhaps the only regret during the 2015 Valor Awards celebration was that Burkert, who retired this past June, could not be there to be honored with the Local and reap an applause so richly deserved. At the time, he was two days removed from hip replacement surgery, a residual of giving his body. Along with his heart, to corrections, Local 199 and the PBA for 21 years, the past 12 as State Delegate.
“Kenny’s work ethic and humanitarian personality set the bar above any other Local,” Krech added.
Said Local 199 President Dave Oppmann: “Kenny taught me what a true sense of loyalty and being a union member is all about.”
Burkert and Krech were actually attending the State PBA Convention in September 2014 in Orlando when they got word of the Freeholders’ plan to regionalize. They tabbed Oppmann, then a Local 199 trustee, to address the Freeholder Board at a public meeting about why there wasn’t the value they thought in such action. When they returned to Union County, they quickly worked to prove their points.
Burkert followed up by retaining State PBA Attorney Robert Fagella to create the documentation to show the freeholders that their idea didn’t make sense. He then led a tour of face-to-face meetings with elected officials, starting with State Senator Ray Lesniak at his home, to further educate the political masses. Finally, Burkert, Krech and other executive board members attended line-ups for every unit in the jail to see every member and keep all officers informed of the effort to thwart the regionalization.
“At one point, the odds were so against us that I decided to reach out to every person I had formed a relationship with during my 12 years as Delegate,” Burkert revealed. ‘I was able to get some high-ranking political figures to listen to our grief, and then we went to the troops because there were a lot of rumors flying and we wanted to make sure they had the truth that we were doing everything we can as a union. That way, whatever the outcome, they would always respect what we were doing.”
When Burkert took over as State Delegate, he recalled respect and communication being the Local’s two biggest gaps. He recruited his longtime friend Krech to be his running mate, and they set about building the bridges to get all Local members on the same page.
“We’re PBA strong because we have learned from our predecessors,” Krech explained. “We always knew that if the lines of communication had broken down, it would have hurt everyone. Communication and relationships – that’s what has kept us going.”
Oppmann observed that Burkert setting the tone to speak from the heart made a huge impact on getting the message to county government about how closing the jail would not only cost more money but potentially put residents at greater risk. The final piece to the plan was binging in Colligan and Executive Vice-President Marc Kovar to make a final impassioned statement about what would happened if freeholders tried to see through their plan.
In early spring of 2015, the regionalization coup was finally put down. Shortly thereafter, Burkert decided it was time to hang up his badge due to shoulders and hips so painful only outdone by a will that wouldn’t even entertain disability retirement.
“I didn’t want to retire with that threat still active,” Burkert confided. “It was very emotional. It was a lot of work to put forth the strategic plan. The truth of the matter is that I always wanted to take the approach that I wasn’t going to be the guy ranting and raving. Until we were able to sit and speak to anyone who mattered and get them to listen to the facts, we weren’t going to beat this thing. When you have the facts, you have to do whatever it takes to get people on your side.”
President Colligan called the Local 199 strategic plan a model for how to deal with regionalization threats.
“When they were threatening to turn the jail into a Holiday Inn Express, they engaged their membership and did everything right,” he continued. “That was a real win.”
Victory has spawned enthusiasm. At the PBA Election Day Phone Bank in Woodbridge Local 199 sent a team of members to make calls; not just E-Board members but the grass roots officers who have plugged into the call to perpetuate Local 199’s stature and impact.
“Our members have been called upon and they are taking action,” Krech confirmed. “We feel very strongly that when you join the PBA, you take an oath. And once you take that oath, you need to live up to it.”
At Union County Corrections Local 199, they call that, “PBA Strong.”