New Yorkers voted overwhelmingly Nov. 7 against a proposition to hold a Constitutional Convention on the state ballot, a victory for which the labor movement worked throughout the day after months of lobbying.
‘A Win for Workers’
More than 80 percent of the voters rejected the proposal to revise the state constitution, which would have resulted in a convention in 2019. The state constitution protects rights concerning pensions, health care and public education, which labor organizers feared could be altered or eliminated as part of the process.
“This is a win for workers and people saying, ‘Enough is enough—we’re not going to let big money get involved here,’” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers. “It was workers coming together, working really hard, communicating with each other and communicating with the public to make New York understand what a Constitutional Convention is.”
The UFT sent members to community-board meetings and held phone banks where retired members called each other. On Election Day, members of the union, as well as a larger coalition, New Yorkers Against Corruption, had planned to pass out leaflets outside of the Manhattan side of the Staten Island Ferry terminal at 4 p.m., as people began to leave work. But heavy rain dampened that plan, so they reorganized and began calling members from the union’s nearby headquarters.
Social media and YouTube videos explaining the risks of a Constitutional Convention played key roles in reaching people, particularly the union’s younger members.
“We text-messaged our members in the morning and when they got off of work so they would remember to vote,” said Marquis Harrison, a rank-and-file member who worked with the UFT’s political team in Manhattan.
In the hours before voting ended, Mr. Harrison said he believed the measure would be defeated but that he “didn’t want to take anything for granted.”
He said that he attended a panel the Sunday before the election, and found that people still were not conversant with the Constitutional Convention provision.
“People thanked me because they would have voted yes otherwise,” Mr. Harrison said.
The labor movement faced an uphill battle in informing the public of the potential risks of holding a convention: in July, two-thirds of New Yorkers had heard “nothing at all” about the November vote on the reform measure, according to a Siena College poll. In a May 2016 poll, 69 percent of likely voters said they would vote in favor of a Constitutional Convention. By Nov. 1, six days before the election, 57 percent said they would vote against it.
“This has re-motivated our membership,” said Dwayne Clark, the UFT’s Manhattan borough representative.
The UFT began organizing a year ago to alert people about the risks of holding a convention, and to encourage them to vote against it. Last month, New Yorkers Against Corruption, made up of more than 130 organizations, held a press conference at the Teachers union’s headquarters to discuss how housing, pensions, immigrants and education could be affected.
One tactic the UFT used to spread the word—lawn signs—was initially dismissed by Mr. Clark.
“At first I was like ‘in Manhattan, everyone lives in high-rises’—I didn’t think too much about it,” he said. “But then I saw a UFT lawn sign out on Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens. People put the signs on their balconies. Fighting against the measure using these signs created member activism.”
Mr. Clark said that the reason the union was adamant about the constitution not being open for revision was because of the ramifications it could have for the “diverse population of children public schools serve.”
DC 37 Also Mobilized
Election Day was a long one for about a dozen District Council 37 retirees, who held a phone bank at its Barclay Street headquarters, from 11 a.m. until 8:00 p.m.
DC 37 made calls to its members on the issue every day from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. since March, said Savian Gainer, who ran the union’s phone-banking operations.
“Our retirees have been really active about letting people know what’s at stake,” he said.
One retiree, Local 1549 member Gwendolyn Grant, called the questions on the ballot “tricky” for those who were unaware of what holding a Constitutional Convention meant.
“I’m glad DC 37 told us about this months ago,” she said.