The question will appear on the ballot on Nov. 7 this year. We are asking you to vote “no,” and here’s why:
At a time when public employee unions have been targeted as Public Enemy No. 1, as more and more states in Republican hands pass right-to-work laws (a misnomer if ever there was one), and as union membership continues to decline nationwide, we fear our enemies will use a state constitutional convention to advance their agenda and destroy many of the benefits and rights that unionized workers, civil rights activists and social justice leaders have fought for in the past century and a half.
A bill of rights
A constitutional convention would put many of our hard-fought rights at risk. The constitution guarantees the right of every child to a free education, the right of workers to collect Workers’ Compensation, and the right to be a member of a union and bargain collectively.
The New York State Constitution also requires that the state provide social services. Article XVII, Section 2, states unequivocally, “The aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions, and in such manner and by such means, as the Legislature may from time to time determine.”
The state constitution, as it is written now, prohibits any reduction in a public employee’s pension benefits. Article 5, Section 7 says “… membership in any pension or retirement system of the state or of a civil division thereof shall be a contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.” It’s a small sentence that, if changed, could have enormous repercussions for our retirees, our in-service members and every public employee enrolled in a retirement system.
A vote of ‘no’ in 1997
The last time the question came before New York voters, they rejected a constitutional convention, and it was no accident: Many groups and organizations, including the UFT, worked together to persuade voters to vote “no” in 1997 for many of the same reasons. If anything, all the pressures we faced in 1997 have only worsened in the ensuing years.
Union membership, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1997 was 14.1 percent of wage and salary employees. About 37 percent of government workers were unionized at that time. In 2016, 10.7 percent of wage and salary workers were unionized. But unionized government workers remained relatively constant at 34.4 percent. New York State leads the nation with the highest union membership rate, at 23.6 percent. We’re becoming the last bastion of advocacy for progressive policies.
Accountability at the polls
One of the reasons we can remain strong is that the New York State Constitution affords us so many protections as union members. We believe that a “no” vote on Nov. 7 prevents our enemies from having the opportunity to destroy that which we have fought so hard to achieve.
A warning: You’re going to hear the argument, “But some things need to change, and this is a good opportunity to do it.” Rest assured: Anything that can be accomplished through a state constitutional convention can also be accomplished through a referendum or individual constitutional amendments passed by the state Legislature. Then, you can hold your elected representatives accountable at the polls when they run for re-election. We believe that is the correct way to affect change.
The UFT’s pension clinics are aimed at those members thinking about retiring within five years, but all members are welcome to attend. These clinics are only one way the UFT educates its members about how to prepare for a financially secure retirement.
This column is compiled by Tom Brown, David Kazansky and Debra Penny, teacher-members of the NYC Teachers’ Retirement Board.