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Union power crushes constitutional convention

Work by UFT members leads to resounding 83 percent NO vote

Suzann Bassil, the chapter leader of PS 39 in Brooklyn, tells passersby about th Miller Photography

Suzann Bassil, the chapter leader of PS 39 in Brooklyn, tells passersby about the importance of voting no while leafletting on Election Day.

New Yorkers had their say, and they said no — resoundingly — to a state constitutional convention on Nov. 8.

“The Vote NO campaign was a case study in how engaged and informed union members can mobilize to protect their rights and benefits,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in an email that evening to members announcing the victory. “We are stronger when we stand united.”

About 83 percent of New York voters cast their ballots against Proposal 1. The margin of victory was 40 percentage points wider than 20 years ago, when the proposal was last on the ballot. Just eight months before, the polls looked bleak, with voters in favor by a 63 to 24 percent margin.

“It definitely demonstrated the power of the union,” said Deborah Caquias, the chapter leader from the Cultural Academy for the Arts and Sciences in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.

The UFT joined other unions and community groups in the New Yorkers against Corruption coalition in the statewide campaign. Meanwhile, more than 3,000 UFT members joined the union’s campaign to help engage and mobilize fellow members on the issue.

UFT chapter leaders began their organizing work by informing members about the issue at chapter meetings in early 2017. Many shared a slide presentation that Mulgrew made at the December Delegate Assembly on the dangers of a constitutional convention

In the final two months leading up to the vote, tens of thousands of UFT members spread the word in numerous ways to fellow members as well as friends and family.

“We worked so hard as a chapter to get this done,” said Loretta Tumbarello, the chapter leader from PS 229 in Queens. “We’ve been talking about the constitutional convention since last spring.” 

Tumbarello said she spoke about the issue at her chapter meetings, handed out Vote NO car magnets and lawn signs, and handed out leaflets outside her school. 

 “I told people, ‘This would eat into the socioeconomic fabric of our neighborhoods and our communities — not only in the city, but throughout the state,’” she said.

She took the extra step of canvassing businesses in her neighborhood. “I went to local businesses — the deli; the Chinese restaurant — and I gave them Vote NO signs and said ‘Can you tape this up?’ And they did!” she said.

Scores of UFT members joined labor walks organized by the state AFL-CIO on the two weekends before Election Day. They knocked on fellow union members’ doors in a massive canvassing operation across New York City.

In the final push, Tumbarello was one of nearly 100 UFT chapter leaders who signed up to organize leafleting outside their schools on Nov. 6 and 7. They handed out the coalition’s palm cards.

In all, the UFT distributed about 40,000 lawn signs, 30,000 buttons and 50,000 car magnets.

Suzann Bassil, the chapter leader of PS 39 in Brooklyn, said she had been talking to her members about the constitutional convention for 10 months. “For the last week and a half, I was outside my school in the morning handing out leaflets and educating the parents,” she said.

In the month leading up to the vote, members, both in-service and retired, also participated in union phone banks in all five borough offices to educate fellow members about the ballot proposal and encourage them to vote. 

To encourage members to inform people beyond their school community, chapter leaders organized meetings where they asked members to sign postcards pledging to contact five people each and alert them to vote NO. 

The union collected 2,530 pledge cards and mailed them back a few weeks before Election Day to the people who filled them out as a reminder of their commitment to reach out.

Caquias, from the Cultural Academy for the Arts and Sciences, said her members filled out more than 300 pledge postcards in April and then made follow-up calls.

“As a team, I felt like we reached a lot of people between the phone calls and the postcards,” she said. “It grew exponentially.”

Thousands of members took to social media to spread the word, using hashtags including #NoConCon, #VoteNoProp1 and #ItsACon on Twitter, and sharing Vote NO graphics to raise awareness among people in their social networks.

“I constantly had it on Facebook,” said Bassil.

Nearly 2,000 people took the union’s tongue-in-check quiz that asked you to test your knowledge about the constitutional convention.

“Our chapter leader really drilled it into us” to get the word out, said Elaine DeLisi, a school secretary at Long Island City HS in Queens. “We made sure to spread it like wildfire. It was so important.”

On the day of the vote, DeLisi stood outside her school with her colleagues holding Vote NO signs. 

“It was just such a great win,” she said. “Even if we did just a small thing, it made a difference.”

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