For Carol DeMeo, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at the College of Staten Island, the November 7 ballot referendum on whether or not to hold a constitutional convention was a local, neighborhood issue. One of her neighbors is a unionized nurse. Another is a fire department lieutenant. In short, the working class had to be united for a no vote in the referendum, she said, since a convention meant that constitutional protections for labor and public services in the state of New York could be opened up and altered by political forces targeting the power of organized labor.
“It was like a Pandora’s box, it was a real scary thing,” she said. “I didn’t trust that anything good would come out of it. It would be harmful to unions and individuals who worked for the state.”
THOUSANDS OF CALLS
DeMeo was one of nearly 50 PSC members and retirees who phone-banked in the run-up to the referendum, making thousands of calls to members to urge a no vote. The stakes were high: a constitutional convention was likely to invite corporate special interests to flood money into the delegate election process, putting public-sector pensions and collective bargaining rights at risk.
DeMeo alone made 722 calls and canvassed 103 members. When asked why she put in the time to make so many calls, she pointed out that in an otherwise low-stakes election year, not many people were educated on the vote on the constitutional convention. “As late as Monday night [before Election Day], I spoke to people who didn’t even know about it. That was really surprising,” she said. “The other thing they didn’t know is that they had to turn the ballot over to vote on the referendum. They wouldn’t see it and they would just walk off.”
PSC’s phone banking was part of a unified labor effort to turn the vote out against the constitutional convention, which included a $3 million labor fund for television ads and anti-convention signs. And the result was significant. While a Siena College poll before Election Day said 59 percent of voters would vote against a convention, the actual result was 83 percent to 17 percent defeating the referendum (the referendum is held every 20 years). Not one of the state’s 62 counties returned a yes vote.
“Early polls had shown close to 70 percent support for a constitutional convention while the vast majority of editorial pages, so-called good government groups and others laid the groundwork for an incredibly steep hill to climb. The result of the election is very clear; working men and women understood what was at stake,” said New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento in a statement after the election. “This is a defining moment for the labor movement as it demonstrates what can be accomplished when we all work together, from the public sector, private sector and building trades unions to the Central Labor Councils and Area Labor Federations.”
The PSC’s state parent union, the New York State United Teachers, also spent both money and member power fighting the campaign. NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said in a statement that the material support was what was necessary to get the no vote out to the public. “NYSUT members made more than 500,000 calls from phone banks, knocked on tens of thousands of doors and distributed literature to their friends, families and colleagues,” he said. “Everywhere you turned, you saw a lawn sign, a car magnet or a button urging a no vote – a sign that NYSUT, and labor, remains a strong force in New York State fighting to protect workers from wealthy special interests.”
The united labor push against the constitutional convention was almost palpable, said John Jay College PSC Chapter Chair Dan Pinello, who made 378 phone calls and reached 44 people. “I live in Nassau County and driving around I have seen for months a ton of bumper stickers that said ‘no on the constitutional convention,’ he said. “All the local teachers’ unions were on a rampage against it. There were lawn signs. Unions across the state were very, very well organized.”
Borough of Manhattan Community College PSC Chapter Chair Geoffrey Kurtz, who made 147 calls and reached 23 members, struck a similar note. “Unions in New York and a few other states still have the power to reach and persuade large numbers of voters. That’s what the huge margin in the “con-con” vote showed, and that’s exactly why anti-union organizations are trying to use the Supreme Court to weaken us,” he said, invoking the case Janus v. AFSCME, which is all but assured to strike the rights of public-sector unions to collect agency-shop fees by next summer. “New York unions still have the cohesion and membership base to be able to reach lots of people, and the moral stature to be persuasive when they point out a threat to the public good.”
The PSC’s phone bankers made 5,125 calls and had conversations with 692 members. Among them, 598, or 86.4 percent, vowed to vote no. In a world of Twitter, mass texting and online petitions, the art of phone banking can seem like an archaic and time-consuming process, but Anselma Rodriguez, who made 193 calls and canvassed 23 members, believes it’s still necessary for political organizing. “The only way is the human element,” said Rodriguez, who is the associate director of the Graduate Center for Worker Education at Brooklyn College. “That is the touch you can see, you can be informed. It really brings the issue to life when a person speaks to you and knows about it.”
Standing out among the members who phone-banked was Justyna Jagielnicka, a mental-health counselor in the Student Life/College Discovery Program at Borough of Manhattan Community College, who made 1,056 phone calls and reached 129 members.
“I just felt like I had to do it, like it was my responsibility, a civic duty,” she told Clarion. “I just made time to do this. I made sure that I allocated two or three hours a night, a few times a week. This question comes up every 20 years, so I felt like this was a deadline to reach everyone, and if I spent this time before the 7th, I’d be able to reach a wide audience.”
She continued, “It was inspiring to call members and have conversations and hear some of their concerns, and to explain the process to them.”