Vote ‘no’ on November 7 to protect labor gains
On November 7 New Yorkers will go to the polls to decide whether the state should hold a constitutional convention. If voters say “yes,” then elected delegates will have the chance to propose amendments to the state constitution.
Several good-government groups, many of which are to the left of center, are pushing for a convention on grounds it is a chance to enshrine fairer voting rights and home rule for New York City in the constitution, as well as advance guarantees for reproductive rights.
But the risks are too high. Organized labor, along with many other constituencies for working people, is advocating against a constitutional convention on grounds that this is a time-consuming and costly process: New Yorkers would elect more than 200 delegates to attend a constitutional convention for an unspecified amount of time in 2019, where these delegates would each be paid $79,500 per year for their time even if they already draw a salary for another public office. (It could cost the taxpayers up to $100 million according to some estimates.) In addition the convention would jeopardize many protections for working people that are currently in the state’s constitution.
Anti-union forces such as the Koch brothers could attempt to eliminate public-employee pensions as well as the right of state workers to collectively bargain. Protections for public schools and social services would also be in the crosshairs of right-wing special interest groups if a constitutional convention is held. While some liberal groups are advocating for a convention as a way to address institutional corruption in Albany, it’s important to state clearly why their arguments are porous. In the PSC’s estimation the risks of a convention to working people are far greater than its hypothetical benefits.
LABOR CAN ELECT PROGRESSIVE DELEGATES
Electing progressive delegates and holding them all accountable is an unlikely task. Consider the following: in New York, a blue state, the Democratic Party doesn’t have enough caucus discipline to keep eight state senators from siding with the Republicans, handing the upper house to the GOP even though the Democrats technically have a majority. If even this small task has proven too difficult, why should progressives think they’d be able to hold more than 200 delegates accountable, let alone elect progressive people to fill these slots statewide?
The delegates will be elected by state senate districts. It is therefore likely that experienced politicians will be well represented in the delegate body and have an outsize influence over other delegates. This point is powerfully made by Geoffrey Kurtz, Borough of Manhattan Community College PSC chapter chair. “Constitutional convention delegates would be elected according to the same gerrymandered state senate districts that have tended to yield a Republican senate in our Democratic-leaning state. Don’t think that this convention would be a civic-minded debate among political scientists and legal scholars, or a revolutionary constituent assembly,” he said.
The points made by Kurtz are underscored by a fact sheet developed by the state AFL-CIO. It points out that the last time the state held a constitutional convention, the delegate body was run not by anti-corruption populists but political insiders. “The Speaker of the Assembly served as president of the convention,” it said. “And of the delegates, 67 percent were lawyers, 25 percent were legislators or former legislators, 15 percent had served in the judicial system and 50 percent had served in a political party office.”
RIGHT-WING GROUPS AREN’T ORGANIZING
The Koch brothers and other national groups will have the necessary incentive to mobilize money and people if the voters return a “yes” vote. These national anti-union groups have been at the forefront of the successful efforts to impose right-to-work laws in states like Iowa and Michigan, as well as banning collective bargaining for state employees in Wisconsin. A constitutional convention opens the possibility for radically diminishing historic protections for labor and public education and would be a tempting target for the right.
Forces inside New York State could also advance an anti-worker agenda should a constitutional convention be called. For example, school privatization forces backed by hedge fund money and the savvy real estate industry will have much to gain if they elect delegates who have an anti-worker agenda. “The risks of massive infusions of unregulated cash opens the door to corporate hijacking of the process,” said PSC Executive Council member Alex Vitale.
CONSERVATIVES ALSO OPPOSE A CONVENTION
Interestingly, the Conservative Party opposes a convention. Some might suggest that it therefore stands to reason progressives should support one. But some progressive groups, like Planned Parenthood of New York and the New York Civil Liberties Union, also oppose a constitutional convention because they believe too much is at stake and too much dark money will contaminate the process.
An anti-convention website from Planned Parenthood states, “In these perilous times with DC extremists bent on rolling back our access to reproductive health, having New York protect our rights is needed more than ever. However, we do not see the constitutional convention as a safe way to protect our reproductive rights because we could lose more than we gain. We believe the legislative and constitutional amendment process is the safest and most inclusive way to strengthen our laws and protect all New Yorkers, especially those who are underrepresented.”
Similarly, the NYCLU said, “The constitutional convention would put at risk state protections that in many instances are stronger than those under federal law. This includes free expression, separation of church and state, the rights of criminal defendants – and more. Given the threat to our liberties posed by Washington and the Trump administration, New Yorkers cannot afford to treat civil liberties and constitutional rights as political bargaining chips.”
LABOR COULD PUSH A PROGRESSIVE AGENDA
Given that a Supreme Court decision next year will likely cripple public-sector unions’ spending power, unions like the PSC may not have organizational strength to match the right-wing spending in 2018 or 2019. Unions should be using their energy to organize members and grow. A constitutional convention would only distract unions during an extremely critical moment.
THIS IS THE ONLY CHANCE TO ENACT CHANGE
A constitutional convention is only one way to structurally change the state constitution. Voters would not need to wait another 20 years in order to implement structural reform. As the state AFL-CIO said in its fact sheet: “If two consecutive, separately elected legislatures pass an amendment, the proposed change is sent to the voters for ratification. In 2014 three amendments were approved by voters, and in 2013 five amendments were ratified.”