Union Boss Criticized After a Death in the Surf
He may look cool and relaxed in his white Mercedes, golden tan and trademark pink polo shirts, but for Peter Stein, summer is no vacation.
Mr. Stein, 63, is the enigmatic union chief who has been a towering figure in New York City’s lifeguard system since the 1960s, when he helped unionize city lifeguards and later became president of Local 508, which represents lifeguard supervisors. During his tenure, he has earned a reputation as a pit-bull negotiator with an unmatched record in mobilizing a lifeguard corps to protect the millions of swimmers who visit the city’s 63 pools and 14 miles of beaches each summer.
No one has fought more fiercely for the rights and benefits for lifeguards, whom he calls “the city’s forgotten emergency service workers.”
But over his long career, Mr. Stein has also been a lightning rod for criticism and controversy, drawing accusations from City Council members and the city’s public advocate’s office that he has run the lifeguard system as a personal fief. With two drownings on city beaches this summer, the verbal attacks are coming from some of his own veteran lifeguards, who argue that Mr. Stein has placed political patronage ahead of public safety.
“How many drownings does it take before the public realizes that the water safety decisions at those beaches are made in some office in Manhattan by people who know nothing about ocean lifeguarding?” said Janet Fash, who has worked as a lifeguard for 29 years and is a chief lifeguard at Rockaway Beach in Queens, where one of the drownings occurred. “They’re made in union offices by Peter Stein and the people he makes supervisors through patronage.”
Through a vigorous campaign against Mr. Stein, Ms. Fash has become his chief nemesis. She has written letters to city officials, joined the local community board, cultivated allies among neighborhood advocates and testified before the City Council in November about the lifeguard system.
Her activism has provoked Mr. Stein into doing something he says he has not done in decades — agree to an interview.
Mr. Stein angrily denied her allegations of patronage, saying, “We don’t have a secret handshake.” He said Ms. Fash was simply “looking for villains” to blame, and currying favor with Rockaway activists who have sought to unseat him. He criticized her for seeking media attention instead of filing official complaints with city or state agencies. “She’s entitled to her views, but I just wish she had some evidence,” he said.
Mr. Stein and Ms. Fash, both Brooklyn natives, first met when Ms. Fash was in her 20s and working as a lifeguard in the Rockaways, and they long maintained a cordial relationship. Mr. Stein offered her a promotion to lieutenant and helped her find a teaching job at Junior High School 223 in Borough Park, Brooklyn, where he was a gym teacher.
It was Mr. Stein who promoted Ms. Fash to chief lifeguard, making her the first woman in the city’s history to hold that post. As chief of the lifeguard shack at Beach 97th Street, Ms. Fash, 48, who still works as a city schoolteacher, oversees 17 lifeguards at six stands in the middle of the Rockaway peninsula in southern Queens.
That stretch of beach, from Beach 96th to Beach 102nd Streets, is known for dangerous rip currents and for attracting huge crowds of often inexperienced swimmers. Ms. Fash says that her criticism of Mr. Stein has led him to retaliate by shrinking her jurisdiction and decreasing her allotment of lifeguards to the point of endangering swimmers.
She says that many other areas of the Rockaways — especially beaches in more affluent neighborhoods that tend to be used by local residents who are strong swimmers — have three, four or five lifeguards per stand, while she is left with two per stand on sweltering days with treacherous surf conditions.
But Mr. Stein said he has no hand in running the lifeguard system and noted that the state sanitary code mandates a lifeguard chair “for each 50 yards of supervised beachfront.”
He added that decisions regarding Ms. Fash’s jurisdiction and any other stretch of city beach are dictated by the water safety plan developed by the city’s parks department and approved by the city’s health department, whose officials routinely inspect beaches to ensure they are being adequately supervised. The parks department runs the city’s pools and beaches.
The clash between Mr. Stein and Ms. Fash is a window into the complexities of the city’s lifeguard system, one that has little to do with the traditional image of the tanned, whistle-twirling rescuer perched on a high chair.
Mr. Stein has helped increase the city’s lifeguard ranks to its highest total, about 1,150, compared with 10 years ago, when a hiring shortage left the city with 500 lifeguards. Roughly 130 senior-level lifeguards — including lieutenants, chiefs and borough coordinators — are members of Mr. Stein’s local. Rank-and-file lifeguards are part of a much larger local led by Franklyn Paige, a longtime friend of Mr. Stein’s.
The parks department bars lifeguards from speaking publicly about their jobs, but Ms. Fash says she has no choice but to speak out against what she calls the corruption from Mr. Stein’s longtime grip on the system.
She depicts the city lifeguard system as rife with Tammany Hall-style machinations, with Mr. Stein as its Boss Tweed. Mr. Stein, she said, keeps the upper echelons of the lifeguard system filled with loyal union members. The city’s lifeguard coordinator, a job Mr. Stein once had, is Richard Scher, the treasurer of Mr. Stein’s local.
Ms. Fash says that city and union officials fail to provide basic safety documents and equipment, and that Rockaway lifeguard chiefs have bosses who lack basic ocean lifeguard skills and issue confounding directives placing lifeguard chairs too far from bathers and allowing swimming areas near riptides and rocky jetties.
The city’s parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, disputed Ms. Fash’s depiction of the lifeguard system, saying that her criticisms were “simply untrue.”
“There are rigorous rules in place for our beaches and pools, for how many lifeguards we need and how they must be deployed,” Mr. Benepe said. “We’re very much beholden to regulations.”
“If there are disagreements of a professional or personal nature between Janet Fash and Peter Stein, that’s not our bailiwick,” he added. “That’s union politics, not our issue. It’s background noise.”
Mr. Benepe said his agency had a good relationship with Mr. Stein’s lifeguard union, but not one that allowed him to exert undue influence.
“I don’t see that hand in it,” he said. “You can’t prevent people from being active in the union, but there’s no patronage.”
Ms. Fash said that many of her lifeguards have become fatigued and frustrated at the staffing conditions. Some are calling in sick, others are considering quitting and others tell her they would rather not work next summer for her, now that she has fallen out of favor.
“The message to them is that, ‘Your chief is speaking out and this is what you’re getting because of it,’ ” she said.
Ms. Fash claims there is inadequate supervision, missing training records, favoritism in staffing and a culture of secrecy that makes it difficult for the public to get information on drownings — echoing findings by city and state inspectors that the city lifeguard system is in regular violation of state code.
“No one — not the lifeguards, the public, or even the city — has been able to break Peter Stein’s stranglehold on the lifeguard system,” Ms. Fash said one recent day as she jogged from one lifeguard stand to the next, checking on her lifeguards and swimmers.
A graduate of Midwood High School, Mr. Stein began as a lifeguard at age 15 and was soon working at Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, where in 1966, at age 21, he helped unionize city lifeguards by organizing a walkout. He befriended the influential labor leader Victor Gotbaum and was soon an instructor at the city’s lifeguard school in Manhattan and as a Brooklyn borough coordinator.
He is known as a forceful union leader who has deftly navigated city politics and bureaucratic roadblocks to gain enviable seasonal contracts for his members that provide them, during the two summer months they work, good wages (lifeguards start at $12.50 an hour) and benefits that include dental, optical, legal and prescription drug coverage, job protection and pension privileges.
Mr. Stein was unscathed by corruption investigations that hit the local’s parent union, District Council 37, and its leader Stanley Hill was toppled. The local holds elections every three years, and Mr. Stein has not had any real opposition in decades. (Ms. Fash is not running.) But he has faced controversy.
For years, he was a fixture in the city tabloids as one of the city’s highest salaried employees, collecting for a time three paychecks — as a gym teacher, union chief and the city’s lifeguard coordinator — that made him more highly paid than the police commissioner.
At the interview in a large conference room at his office in downtown Manhattan, Mr. Stein, seated alongside a press adviser and another employee taking notes, veered from funny and charismatic to volatile and explosive, especially when the subject of “double dipping” came up.
When asked about the multiple paychecks, he immediately grew angry and said his compensation was irrelevant. He later said that he worked hard for the money, adding that he no longer teaches, and receives only his union salary. With great relish, he added that now it is Ms. Fash who is the double-dipper, as a teacher and a lifeguard. (Ms. Fash said she makes roughly $100,000 from both salaries.)
Representative Anthony D. Weiner, whose district includes Rockaway Beach, has been a frequent critic of the lifeguard program, once characterizing oversight of it as “Rube Goldbergian.”
“It’s obviously not a transparent system, and they have to make it more open,” he said in an interview on Saturday. “All we’re hearing is ‘he said, she said’ and there are a lot of young lifeguards stuck in the middle.”